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Commercialization up close and personal

March 14, 2012

At first glance this post is about a minor issue. The elusive Real Problem lies elsewhere. But sometimes small events are part of a pattern. Think of racist or sexist jokes, which disturb not merely because they offend, but because they are linked to larger inequities.

At Sacramento State the Business School occupies the first two floors of Tahoe Hall, and on the third floor you can find the departments of government, economics, history, and public policy, as well as the Center for California Studies. Back in October I arrived on campus one day and saw that someone had installed two digital stock market tickers in the entry areas of the building, where hundreds of people walk past everyday on their way to classrooms and offices. Many third floor faculty were angry. The issue was raised at a faculty council meeting of the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (SSIS), and we requested a meeting with the Dean of the Business School. Scheduling difficulties ensued. Then one day in early February we were surprised to find large video screens below the stock tickers, continuously broadcasting commercials for Wells Fargo and AT&T.

On March 6 several third floor faculty, plus the deans of SSIS and Arts & Letters, finally met with Business Dean Sanjay Varshney. (You may remember Dean Varshney from his controversial study on California’s global warming legislation.) Third floor faculty politely explained their view that all faculty whose offices and classes are in Tahoe Hall should be represented in decisions on major changes to public areas. Department chairs could have suggested reasonable modifications to the installations, but they were not consulted.

Third floor faculty also expressed substantive concerns: playing selected “corporate messages” (as Dean Varshney called them) may lead students to ask whether faculty are biased toward those corporations; faculty should be teaching about brand loyalty, not teaching loyalty to brands; the video monitors and stock market tickers project a business-friendly sensibility that undermines our efforts to help students analyze business activities in an objective manner.

In response Dean Varshney said that for years others had neglected the public appearance of Tahoe Hall, and now that he had finally made it look nice, people were complaining. (The Business School has also installed various other amenities, like plants and directional signs, which I don’t think anybody minds.) He said the video screens are no more objectionable than putting a donor’s name on an academic building. The Business School, he explained, needs to project a clear identity, meet student expectations, and attract corporate donors. He said that involving the third floor departments in decisions on how to use the public areas would inevitably take too long and fail to produce any agreements.

A couple days later I stopped by Dean Varshney’s office to ask a few more questions. Contrary to what some of us thought, he said the Business School does not receive any direct revenue for showing the video messages. About one-third of the Business School’s budget comes from private donors, and Dean Varshney sees the video messages as a good will gesture that helps maintain positive relations with these donors.

Dean Varshney repeatedly stressed his good intentions, and I see no need to question them. But his actions suggest that, on this issue so far at least, he is doing more to maintain positive relations with corporate donors than with his colleagues in Tahoe Hall.

Dean Varshney also explained that the video messages will help increase the visibility of certain employers for Business School graduates. In the future, he said, some of the videos will showcase student activities, but he couldn’t say how many. When I asked whether other departments could show their own videos, he said the Business School would expect payment in return. By way of comparison, a few years ago the university installed a giant digital sign by Highway 50. It’s owned and operated by Clear Channel, but some of the revenue is shared across campus, and one out of every eight ads is for something at Sacramento State.

Dean Varshney has been courteous and generous with his time, and I’ve tried to present his arguments fairly. If you’re familiar with the culture of business schools, these installations probably seem like no big deal.

But our Business School is not out in a field somewhere. It is part of this (for now) public university. If the Business School receives one-third of its funding from private donors, then I suppose it receives about two-thirds from students and taxpayers. The university needs to maintain a built environment conducive to its mission, which does not include preferential assistance to the publicity efforts of selected corporations.

The award-winning film “Inside Job” showed how top business schools provided academic legitimacy for policies that contributed to the financial meltdown of 2008 (here’s a relevant clip), and now business schools are being scrutinized for conflicts of interest. They should probably avoid doing anything that creates even the appearance of such conflicts.

Our department can’t afford fancy video screens, but we’re looking into putting up some messages of our own. Please post your suggestions, or any other responses, in the comments section.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    March 14, 2012 12:57 PM

    You mentioned in your blog that, according to Dean Varshney, the Business School receives one-third of its funding from private donations. I am curious as to who are these donors and what do they fund. How does their funding affect instructional activities and/or personnel policies (tenure/promotion/bonuses) at the Business School? Are the names of the donors a matter of public record? I wonder if the Dean would respond to these questions. They seem to me to be legitimate avenues of inquiry and something that the Dean ought to feel obliged to answer.

    Great recollection on your part of the global warming study. I had forgotten the incident and the authors, though I still recall the public embarrassment for Sacramento State that resulted from the criticism of this “academic study.”

  2. Darren Hall permalink
    March 14, 2012 2:51 PM

    I think you have a great opportunity here to capitalize on the ubiquitous “teachable moment.” Why not have a teach-in located in the entry way where the displays are located. By all means, invite members of the Business School to participate. Here’s a a chance to let students from various departments witness an exchange of views on a topic that affects them (and indeed, by raising the issue itself, you begin to unpack the issue and help students to see precisely why these things do matter). Another idea I had was to invite the theater arts department to get involved by doing a performance art piece that connects the visuals of a stock ticker’s de-contextualized emphasis on shareholder value to the real world social and environmental consequences of that singular focus.

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