Penn State President Rodney Erickson should be congratulated for ending the university’s apparel contract with Adidas for 60 days.
Erickson’s letter to Bob Leuenberger of Adidas stipulates that Penn State’s contract will end permanently if about 2,800 former workers at the PT Kizone factory in Indonesia are not paid proper severance wages.
The factory closed in 2011, and two of the apparel companies that also used the PT Kizone facility – Nike and Dallas Cowboys Merchandising – have already paid a portion of the workers’ severance.
“The size, scope and influence of Adidas can be a force for good, as well as profit, in this arena, and we want to partner toward the shared goal of social justice,” Erickson wrote.
Erickson’s strong words are a notable departure from his deposed predecessor, Graham Spanier.
In fall 2008, Spanier published a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Is Campus Activism Dead – or Just Misguided?” In it, the former president argued some valid points about how student activism had diminished both in size and scope.
At the same time, Spanier came off as a condescending university president shirking his responsibility for holding big corporations liable for human rights violations, dismissing a fair labor system for apparel as incomplete.
It would not be the last time one of Spanier’s calculated statements would backfire, and it serves as a small indicator of the former president’s attitudes toward the business sector. Under Spanier’s watch, Penn State had evolved into a great friend in higher education of corporations, and not just as a consistent source of great employees.
He helped to raise many millions from the corporate sector, backed down from supporting unions and notoriously had students arrested for protesting labor policies. Tellingly, he would never adopt concrete anti-sweatshop policies during his presidency, despite large university systems like the University of California and University of Wisconsin doing so.
It’s also worth mentioning that Penn State was the very last school to join the Workers Rights Consortium in the Big Ten, an organization that Erickson strongly supports in his letter.
But, when it comes down to it, could President Spanier have entertained severing ties with Adidas? Maybe.
Advocating for PT Kizone workers seems to be a popular thing to do right now, with schools across the nation doing the same thing. Penn State’s licensing contract with Adidas is worth nickels to the university, producing royalty revenues of only about $6,800 during the 2011-12 fiscal year. Dear Old State could add one more tuition-paying student to the Class of 2017 today to recoup losses.
More important than hypothetical questions is this: Spanier doesn’t have the opportunity to break off contracts anymore, nor engage with student groups. Erickson does, and he may set an admirable precedent for Penn State’s future president to stand by.
The Freeh Report alleges outright that corporate brand loyalties got in the way of Penn State’s educational mission and, more importantly, the protection of children from convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky. The courts will decide that.
No matter your stance on Louis Freeh’s report, it’s reasonable to say that corporate influence disrupted Penn State leadership from taking student activism seriously, at the very least.
I encourage Erickson to extend his newly amicable relations with student activists to the rest of his all-too-short presidency.
It also would be great to see some of Penn State’s activists in attendance at the presidential search forums later this week, meant for the entire university community to voice concerns.
Mike Hricik is a senior majoring in print journalism and is The Daily Collegian’s Monday columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.