Report: Hunter College Probe Slams Coach-Sponsored PR Class

NEW YORK A Hunter College Senate Committee’s investigation of a Coach-sponsored PR class slams the college’s administration on numerous academic freedom grounds and says that the PR practices taught in the class were “deeply troubling.”

As detailed Monday in Adweek, the course taught last spring at Hunter in New York was funded by a $10,000 grant from Coach and was part of a college outreach campaign by the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC), a trade group that includes Coach and other brands like Apple, Levi Strauss & Co., Louis Vuitton and Rolex. A class, acting as an idea-pitching and campaign-executing agency for Coach and the trade group, invented a blogging student named Heidi Cee whose posts on Facebook and MySpace try to dissuade students from buying counterfeit goods. PR observers and bloggers faulted the campaign for being deceptive.

The findings in the below report, which was leaked to Adweek and is scheduled to be presented on May 21 to the full college senate, largely echo the concerns of Stuart Ewen, one of two Hunter professors who made the complaint that led to the investigation, namely that the professor who taught the course was “coerced” to do so, that the trade group’s and Coach’s hands-on involvement with the course “was clearly a violation of academic freedom,” and that that the course was initiated at the behest of the administration rather than the faculty.

Concerning the widely held suspicion that the course appeared to be a way of buttering up Coach CEO Lew Frankfort, a Hunter alumnus, who several months later donated $1 million to the school, the report says it “did not have access to information that could prove or disprove the belief.”

While the report stresses that the nature of the campaign itself is outside of its purview, it still gives it a dig, saying, “The nature of the course allowed for a casual approach to the dignity of students and relied on deception to achieve some of its aims — which were, we emphasize, as much corporate as pedagogical.”

William Sakas, the Hunter professor who chairs the Academic Freedom Committee, stresses that it doesn’t have any legislative power to act on the findings.

“We’ll submit it the Senate Administrative Committee and the Provost’s office,” Sakas says. “They’re the ones that can take action.”

Report from the Academic Freedom Committee:

Film and Media’s Special Public Relations Seminar, MEDP 299.48

I. Genesis of the Investigation

The Senate Committee on Academic Freedom was initially sent a complaint by two tenured members of the Film and Media Department, Stuart Ewen and Peter Parisi. This complaint claimed that “during the spring semester 2007, a course was offered in the Media Studies program that appears to have been put in place by the college administration and structured and supervised to serve the purposes of a corporate trade association.” Moreover, the complaint claimed that Tim Portlock, an untenured, newly-hired faculty member, “had been assigned to teach the course even though he lacks any training in marketing or public relations. (He is a digital artist, specializing in the creation of virtual 3-D environments).” Although the committee came to the conclusion that corporate financial sponsorship of courses is not, in and of itself, an infringement of any of the accepted standards of academic freedom, these charges seemed serious enough, raising questions of possible interference with the curricular mission of the College beyond financial sponsorship and possible misappropriation of faculty time, that the Committee created a subcommittee to investigate the claim.

The subcommittee was able to conduct formal interviews with the complainants, the instructor, Deputy Chair Kelly Anderson, and the liaison from the College President’s office to Prof. Portlock, Taina Borrero. The Department Chair, James Roman, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview and eventually declined to meet with the subcommittee. He did, however, meet with the Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee. The Chair also held a phone conversation with the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, Eija Ayravainen.

II. The Course: “Special Public Relations Seminar” MEDP 299.48

The course under discussion here was a Special Topics Seminar offered in Media Studies. Given the special status of topics courses in the Hunter curriculum, that is, that departments can offer individual special topics courses on a limited basis without having to go through departmental or College-wide curricular review, this course was not reviewed by a curriculum committee within Film and Media or the School of Arts and Sciences, or by Undergraduate Course of Study before it was offered.

All of the interviewees pointed out the connections between the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC), a trade organization made up of the manufacturers of luxury goods; Paul Werth Associates, the public relations firm that represented the IACC; Coach, Inc. who provided $10,000 which was used to fund the course; and the fact that Coach CEO Lew Frankfort is a Hunter alumnus who received an honorary degree in May 2007, and has recently given a large donation to the College.

The structure of the course followed the guidelines laid out in the “Professor/Faculty Advisor Project Kit,” which had been compiled by the IACC as part of their “Get Real” campaign. The Kit included general guidelines for the structure of the course, the desired outcomes of the course, including possible student projects, a “backgrounder” for students to fill them in on the IACC’s take on luxury good counterfeiting, a student evaluation form, and so on. The Kit emphasized the role of Coach as a funder of the course and asked instructors to “make sure [students] are aware that Coach has generously donated funds for this project.” As mentioned, $10,000 was made available to Prof. Portlock to spend on course materials.

The IACC has a website detailing the campaigns that emerged from this course: www.iacc.org/resources/Hunter_Report.pdf

III. Findings

Although Prof. Roman said he could not recall who in the administration initially approached him with the idea of offering the course, from interviews with the relevant parties it appears that the course originated in the Office of the President. In the months before it was assigned to Prof. Portlock, meetings took place between Prof. Roman, Ms. Borrero, the Vice President for Student Affairs Eija Ayravainen, and the Pre-Law Program Coordinator Barbara Landress to determine which department would offer this course.

According to Prof. Roman, he chose Tim Portlock to teach the course because, although he did not have the expertise necessary, Prof. Portlock is a junior faculty member, and as Chair, Prof. Roman tried to give untenured faculty the opportunity to teach high profile courses. Prof. Roman attested to the fact that Prof. Portlock did not object to the teaching assignment. Prof. Roman also mentioned that he told Prof. Portlock that it would be good for Prof. Portlock to be visible to the administration. After Prof. Portlock expressed concern over his own lack of familiarity with the course content, Prof. Roman assigned an adjunct with public relations experience, Ben Weissman, to assist him.

During the subcommittee’s interview with Prof. Portlock, Prof. Portlock indicated that during conversations with Prof. Roman, Prof. Portlock expressed extreme reluctance to teach the course for two reasons: first, public relations and marketing are far outside his area of expertise, which is web-based art; second, he objected to corporate-sponsored courses for ethical reasons. Prof. Portlock also said that he expressed his fear to Prof. Roman that if he did a substandard job with it his tenure chances might be in jeopardy. Moreover, Prof. Portlock communicated to the subcommittee his belief that he was assigned the course because he was “the most vulnerable faculty member” in the department due to an unsatisfactory evaluation of his professional activity by the departmental P&B.

Over the course of the rest of the semester, Prof. Portlock said he was in frequent (up to three times a week) communication with Ms. Borrero or other staff in the President’s office, representatives of the IACC, Coach, and Paul Werth, the PR firm that represented the IACC. According to Prof. Portlock, this led to a conference call with Prof. Portlock, Mr. Weissman, and Melina Metzger, a Paul Werth employee. Prof. Portlock asked how much leeway he had in presenting the issue of counterfeiting. When Ms. Metzger said “We want you to teach all points of view,” Prof. Portlock reported that he asked if he could bring in pro-counterfeiting perspectives. The attorney allegedly responded: “If you think you’re going to get some Senegalese guy to come in and unroll his mat and show his wares, that’s not going to happen.” According to Prof. Portlock, the attorney ended the conversation by saying “If you think we’re going to give $10,000 to a course that’s going to be critical of us, you’re wrong.” He asked her to repeat this, and she did.(1)

Several of the parties interviewed testified to the fact that the course put considerable stress on Prof. Portlock. Ultimately he had to take responsibility for reserving space for student tabling, ordering promotional items, and one week was on the telephone with vendors for six to eight hours every day. Initially he charged $3,500 worth of goods to his credit card, but eventually a system was worked out in which he would request reimbursement from the office of the VP for Student Affairs. According to Vice President Ayravainen, she often handles funds from outside donors and approves reimbursements when the funds are targeted for student use (e.g., scholarships). Although the funding was specifically for course materials, Vice President Ayravainen explained that at the time it seemed to be the most expedient way to issue reimbursements since there is a well-established system to handle donor contributions through her office.

Although Prof. Portlock told us that the students were enthusiastic about the course and highly motivated, he expressed academic concerns about the IACC guidelines for the course, most centrally that there were no guidelines as to how he should evaluate student work, since, as he put it “it was all about product.”

At the May 2007 Film and Media departmental meeting, Prof. Roman thanked Prof. Portlock for teaching the course. According to all members of Film and Media that were interviewed, this caused immediate uproar among the other faculty, who had no idea the course was being taught. At the October 10th meeting, Prof. Parisi reported on the course. The rest of the faculty expressed unease with what had transpired. The department decided that in future any potential sponsored courses should be vetted by the entire departmental Curriculum Committee, and that the course itself was a mistake that should not be repeated.

IV. Conclusions

Given the findings above, the committee has come to the following conclusions:

1. Although Prof. Roman maintained that Prof. Portlock was neutral, even pleased, to teach MEDP 299.48, we do not believe that was the case. This is more than a case of competing versions of events: all our other interviewees from Film and Media were clear in their belief that Prof. Portlock was coerced into teaching this course. They all commented on Prof. Portlock’s embarrassment at having to acknowledge he was teaching it and his emotional stress both before and during the semester in which the course was offered. Moreover, they were all in agreement that Prof. Portlock was selected to teach the course because he was newly hired, untenured, and vulnerable, even though he was wholly unqualified to teach this material. This clearly contravenes the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s standard on academic freedom as stated in its 1940 Statement on Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure, “Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” In this case, it is impossible to separate the question of freedom to teach in one’s area of expertise from the issue of tenure. Prof. Portlock’s desire for tenure left him open to coercion in ways that a tenured faculty member would not have experienced. Prof. Roman’s attempt to reassure Prof. Portlock that the administration would be very pleased if Prof. Portlock did a good job on this course seems to us to qualify as much as a threat as a comfort.

2. At the same time, our interviewees agreed that Prof. Roman did not necessarily intend to coerce Prof. Portlock. Even Prof. Portlock himself concluded that Prof. Roman “probably thought he was doing me a favor.” Given our further conclusions below, we believe that the violations of academic freedom in this case extend beyond what we agree was the infringement of Prof. Portlock’s rights. While we do believe that Prof. Roman behaved inappropriately, particularly in not consulting with his departmental P&B committee before assigning the course, we did not find any evidence that he intended to harm Prof. Portlock’s tenure candidacy.

3. The IACC Professor/Faculty Advisor Project Kit makes clear that only one point of view is acceptable for the course. Moreover, Prof. Portlock’s suggestion that contrary opinions be aired was summarily (and, apparently, disrespectfully) dismissed. This also clearly and seriously subverts the tenets of academic freedom. In its 1940 Statement, the AAUP maintains that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” In its 1970 interpretation of the 1940 principles, the AAUP clarifies this point: “Controversy is at the heart of free academic inquiry.” The committee concludes that controversy was not allowed in the course: only one perspective was allowed, which was that of the IACC. It is important to note that this was an infringement not only of Prof. Portlock’s academic freedom rights, but also of the academic freedom rights of the students who took the course. Students enrolled in the special topics course were not provided with materials or the opportunity to pursue multiple points of view of the counterfeit product market. The IACC course pack imposed a narrow and biased perspective in the classroom; students were not presented with a scholarly analysis of the counterfeit market. Moreover, the IACC’s emphasis on the Coach company’s financial contribution to the course, and the lavish funds available to instructors, at the very least suggest that the IACC believed that they were paying for a service, a service that brooked no challenge to its message.

4. The committee also concludes that the IACC (in the person of Melina Metzger and the IACC attorney) actively interfered in the content, process, and teaching of this course over the semester in which it was offered. This is clearly a violation of academic freedom for the reasons listed above. Although the committee finds that the President’s office did not directly interfere with the course during the semester, it feels that the frequent and repeated communication with Prof. Portlock was unusual and inappropriate administrative involvement. The committee also wonders why the office of the Vice President for Student Affairs was involved with the administration of the funds for the course, rather than the Vice President for Academic Affairs. The committee finds that there was an inappropriate blurring of administration and curricular concerns making it difficult for Prof. Portlock to exercise his right of academic freedom in the classroom and raises questions about shared governance, in particular the faculty’s oversight of the curriculum.

5. While several of our interviewees were convinced that this course was a direct result of a large donation to Hunter by Lew Frankfort, the CEO of Coach, we did not have access to any information that could prove or disprove that belief. Moreover, it seems to us that courses with corporate sponsorship in their own right do not violate academic freedom as long as there is no coercion involved at any stage. While we do have questions about the larger academic ethics of Hunter’s offering courses that are generated by corporations or that are linked to donations, we believe that it is up to the Senate or individual departments to decide, as Film and Media has done, how to approach such courses. In addition, we commend the Film and Media Studies Department in formulating a meaningful policy to deal with sponsored courses that ensures that such courses meet with approval of a committee of faculty members. We strongly recommend that other departments consider enacting similar guidelines specific to courses receiving funding from outside of Hunter.

In summary, the committee concludes that there were three aspects of MEDP 299.48 that circumvented the academic freedom rights of Prof. Portlock and his students.

— The most egregious aspect was that free inquiry into multiple points of view was effectively blocked despite the expressed desire of the instructor to promote such inquiry. Only a single point of view, a distinctly non-scholarly perspective that came from outside of the Academy and hence not subject to the usual rigor of peer-review and other academic standards of higher education, was presented during the course.

— The unconventional nature of the course, both in its genesis (i.e., from outside of Hunter), and the extremely narrow perspective presented in the IACC’s Professor/Faculty Advisor Project Kit, clearly invites discussion about substantive issues of pedagogy at Hunter. The choice of an untenured faculty member whose expertise falls well outside of the scope of the IACC course material predisposed a situation which made it difficult for the instructor to exercise his academic freedom rights, both in his ability to refuse to teach the class beforehand, and in his ability to control the subject matter presented while the course was running.

— Content of courses at Hunter is reserved to individual faculty, and the faculty collectively through the Hunter College Senate. There was unwarranted involvement in the course from parts of the administration that are not charged with curricular substance, i.e., the Office of the President and the Office of Student Affairs. This blurring of the definitions of shared governance specifically contributed to the academic freedom concerns articulated above.

In closing the committee notes that there is much deeply troubling about the genesis and execution of MEDP 299.48 beyond issues of academic freedom. This episode raises concerns about the ethics of pedagogy in higher education today — concerns that deserve discussion by the College community. Sponsored courses seem not to violate academic freedom in their own right, but invite manipulations of the usual principles of classroom discussion. More discomfiting, the course in question, MEDP 299.48, made use of Hunter students to advance corporate interests, and created a false ad campaign(2) that deceived Hunter students (who were not in the class). The nature of the course allowed for a casual approach to the dignity of students and relied on deception to achieve some of its aims — which were, we emphasize, as much corporate as pedagogical. While we cannot say that these ethical questions amount to outright violations of assumed principles of academic freedom, we note that they share with the academic-freedom concerns explicated above a disregard for the usual practices of pedagogy and the principles of teaching at Hunter College.

FOOTNOTES:

1 The Committee agreed that the subcommittee should only approach persons with a current Hunter College affiliation. Hence, Ms. Metzger and Mr. Weissman who has left Hunter and is currently out of state were not interviewed on this point.

(2) “Hunter’s campaign”, as the IACC’s website puts it, centered around a fictional student who posted fliers “all over the campus advertising a $500 reward for her [lost] bag”. After receiving a counterfeit bag for her $500, this fictional character then created a blog, a YouTube video, and MySpace.com and Facebook.com Web pages to “educate her peers about counterfeiting by using online tools in conjunction with an on-campus event.”