A Message from Michael: Nike discussions highlight healthy intellectual

climate


SOMETIMES EDUCATORS FORGET that learning is a two-way street, that we stand to acquire just as much knowledge and insight from our students as they do from us.

Case in point: the recent student-initiated discussions over the University's contract with Nike. The two student groups--one for and one against the athletic giant and its contract with UNC--provided a tremendous service to our community. The debate they sparked, as well as the hard questions posed by members of the faculty and others, are just the kind of rich, intellectual exchange that should be happening across our campus.

In the case of students, they staked out their sides on an issue, researched it on their own time--outside of class--and shared their findings and beliefs with the greater University in an effort to influence thoughts and actions. Likewise, many faculty members have taken the time and effort to become acquainted with the issue and make their opinions heard. We are all better informed through this kind of free and open exchange.

While I do not wholly agree with the positions of the Nike Awareness Campaign, the student group's demands, voiced at a recent speak-out, were well-informed and reasonable, and I found it easy to accept their terms.

First, they proposed creating a committee of faculty, staff and students to examine corporate sponsorship--like the Nike contract--on campus. We already have a university-industry relations committee with a similar mission. It easily can expand its scope to meet the students' objective.

The students also asked for UNC to use its contract to help influence better working conditions in companies Nike contracts with in Southeast Asia. Again, an admirable and reasonable request. Just last week--less than a week after I spoke with students on the steps of South Building--I sat down with Nike executives and had a very informative discussion about their overseas operations. I promise that the discussion will continue.

As a result of a request that I made at that meeting, Nike has agreed to allow a group of UNC students and faculty to visit its plants in Southeast Asia to see working conditions first-hand. That's learning in the truest sense of the word. Those who make the trip will have the responsibility to come back to campus and share their personal observations--observations unfiltered by a review agency or the media.

I found the two student requests easy to comply with. We were not asked to cancel our contract with Nike. They recognized that corporate sponsorship plays major role in an athletic program like ours, one of the few nationwide that are totally self-supported. Without outside funding, we would be forced to find other means to operate in the black, with increased student athletic fees or ticket prices leading the list of ways to generate additional money.

I do maintain some differences of opinion with the students in the Nike Awareness Campaign and some of our faculty, but in a university there is room for all voices to be heard. As I have pointed out, most labor-intensive U.S. consumer goods are manufactured in Southeast Asia or developing countries elsewhere. Check the label on your own shirt or slacks; you might be surprised. They likely were made in plants with labor conditions similar to--or probably worse than--those in plants contracted by Nike.

Keep in mind, too, that other athletic apparel manufacturers produce similar goods in the very same plants and under the very same conditions as Nike. Should we target Nike simply because it is an industry leader? Nike has, after all, been recognized by independent reviewers as providing better working conditions for its employees than many other companies in those countries. Nike has a strong code of ethics, and I am convinced the company works hard to abide by it.

U.S. companies rely on labor in developing countries because it is less expensive than domestic labor. Yes, the conditions are not up to the standards we expect here. But in the case of Nike, working conditions and pay often are beyond what is available elsewhere in these developing nations. By offering jobs, companies like Nike are helping jump-start the economies of these countries. It boils down to a question of global economics.

As I have said many times, UNC must be a moral exemplar in all that it does. Some issues--such as corporate sponsorship--aren't defined in the crisp black and white we would prefer. Opinions may differ on our association with Nike, but I whole-heartedly defend everyone's right to express their point of view. We owe much to the students for starting this important conversation and to other members of our campus community for joining in. These kinds of interactions can only lead to a more enlightened University.

--Michael Hooker


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