Reprinted from The Rant (September 2002)
Recently the Lanthorn ran an article on our universitys exclusive contract with Pepsi. The article was very positive, openly praising the funding for the university, while failing to consider the negative aspects of such a contract. Indeed, for many people, there seems to be few negative points to the deal, unless of course one prefers to purchase Coca-Cola products instead of Pepsi products. While many people may not think of the negative aspects of the deal, it is part of a trend towards the commercialization of the university environment, where a plethora of products are marketed to what is a largely captive and much coveted audience of college students by corporations who are beginning to control many university services.
The desire for a piece of this lucrative market has led Pepsi and other soft drink companies to aggressively seek contracts with universities. They realize that the college-age students are a key demographic for their success. Television ads may be successful in generating sales, but obtaining exclusive rights to sell products on campus is a way to guarantee sales. Exclusive contracts allow companies to set prices and avoid competition, a clear violation of free market principles. In addition to their targeting of universities, soft drink companies pursue exclusive contracts in public schools. The public school market has been particularly lucrative as they can often obtain contracts with schools desperate for money in ailing urban areas. Many administrators regret the way their schools are beholden to these contracts, but in areas where funding is minimal they have little choice. This has also raised concerns over the inherently unhealthy nature of soft drinks with high sugar and caffeine content. These beverages are aggressively marketed to students who, according to most research, should be eating more healthy foods. Some researchers have linked the increased consumption of soft drinks with the high obesity rates among both students and the larger society.
Ultimately the concern should not be about whether or not soft drinks are healthy, we can all make our own decisions as to what we wish to drink. More importantly, exclusive contracts with soft drink companies are illustrative of a greater trend toward the privatization and commercialization of the university. Increasingly large numbers of university services are being privatized. Previously independent college bookstores are now operated by large corporations, such as industry leader Follet Higher Education Group, who operates bookstores on 600 campuses including Grand Rapids Community College and Michigan State. Barnes and Noble College Bookstores, sister-company to the largest retail bookstore in America, operates bookstores on over 400 campuses. Aramark, a contracting company, provides food service on 325 campuses. Fast-food chains such as McDonalds have become as omnipresent on campuses as they are in the suburbs. There has also been a proliferation of advertising on campus from credit card companies and other sources.
The process of commercialization ushered in by exclusive contracts with corporations has been the subject of criticism in recent years. One of the main concerns is that decisions are being made for financial reasons, excluding considerations about how the corporate presence will reflect on the institution. There is also a threat that the presence of these corporations will result in a loss of autonomy by universities as they become dependent on corporate sources for funding. It is conceivable that corporations will use their financial power to influence university policies as similar concerns have been shown to be valid as some universities refuse to act on certain issues in order to appease their donors. Even a minor issue, such as a corporate bookstore refusing to carry a particular title, can threaten the autonomy of the university. There are additional concerns about whether corporate influence affects scholarship by potentially restricting research on issues that are at odds with corporate donors. Other critics have argued that the presence of advertising on campuses is just plain distracting, even if they do not believe that it affects the educational process. This raises the question of whether the university should be a refuge from advertising or just another place where we are subject to the never-ending onslaught of advertising. Moreover, there is the criticism that increased commercialization results in a university run on a corporate model, where the attainment of a degree is promoted as a requisite for a successful corporate career, rather than emphasizing process of education. In this view, university education is downgraded as just another consumer product to be sold on the market and students are simply consumers seeking to buy an education just as they would buy a new car.
Aside from the commercialization of our campuses, we must also consider how the presence of corporations affects the communitys perception of the university. The business and manufacturing practices used by the corporations that sell products on our campuses reflects on the university. Starbucks, whose coffee is sold at GVSU, makes use of prison labor in the United States through a contracting company, Signature Packaging Solutions. Taco Bell, who has been criticized for offering inauthentic Americanized versions of Mexican food, is currently the subject of a boycott on college campuses across the country for their labor practices. Tomato pickers contracted through Six Ls Packaging Company pay their workers only $7,500 per year while failing to provide health insurance, sick leave, and vacation time. During the mid-1990s Pepsi, with whom the university has an exclusive contract, was the target of an international boycott for their support of the brutal SLORC regime in Burma.
The commercialization of college campuses raises many concerns and presents many challenges. As corporations become increasingly prevalent on campuses, the university must be responsible for assuring the integrity of these corporations. Companies with abusive labor practices or poor environmental records reflect poorly on the university. There are also questions of democracy, should students and faculty be allowed to take part in the decision-making process or should the university administrators be given exclusive authority to decide which corporations are allowed on campus. Most importantly, these contracts must involve more than pecuniary concerns.