UW May Find Nike Violated Its Labor Code, Just Days After Provost Phyllis Wise Joined the Board

Phyllis Wise will earn up to $200,000 from Nike
University of Washington President Mark Emmert will meet tomorrow morning with co-chairs of a faculty and student advisory committee to discuss the possibility of putting Nike "on notice" for violating the university's code of conduct at two Honduran factories.

The Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing, which reviews the university's dealings with companies that produce goods bearing the school logo, recommended such a move in an e-mail to Emmert last night in light of reports that workers had not received legally-required severance pay when the Nike factories suddenly closed in January.

The potential action against Nike comes as faculty and students are steaming over last week's revelation that Provost Phyllis Wise has taken a seat on the sportswear company's board of directors.

Emmert is "very supportive" of the Nike appointment
But Emmert, speaking publicly for the first time about the controversy in an interview with Seattle Weekly, says he believes Wise's seat on the board will allow her to make a "case for appropriate behavior." He says Wise checked with him before accepting the Nike position, and that he was "very supportive."

Nike, which produces T-shirts and other apparel stamped with the UW name, is the school's largest licensee, according to Margaret Levi, a political science professor who co-chairs the advisory committee. That deal is separate from the $35 million contract that entitles Nike to be the university's sole provider of sports apparel and equipment, one that has raised a separate conflict-of-interest issue for Wise.

Wise, who was travelling and could not be reached for comment, has recused herself from any university decision-making about Nike. Consequently, Levi says she doesn't have a problem with the provost's affiliation. Echoing Emmert, she says, "It might even be advantageous to the effort to improve workers' rights to have someone like Pyllis Wise on the board."

Nevertheless, a university sanction against Nike might embarrass Wise. If UW put Nike on notice, it would likely demand some "remedial action" under the threat of terminating the licensing arrangement, according to Levi. Emmert, who says he's taking the committee's recommendation "very, very seriously," notes that the university ended a licensing agreement with the Russell Corporation this year due to allegations similar to those against Nike.

Wise's Nike affiliation is already under attack from some students and faculty members. The Associated Students of the UW is considering a resolution that would ask Wise to step down due to conflict of interest and the potential for silencing campus activism against Nike (although the latter concern is not borne out by this week's talks about sanctioning the company).

A pathology professor named Steve Schwartz is also raising questions on his blog and a faculty listserve about whether Wise followed school policy in taking the board position. He says the provost, who still serves as a physiology professor, is required to seek permission from her department chair and the Medical School dean before accepting outside remuneration. Emmert, however, points out that Wise discussed the position with him "at great length."

Like other faculty members, Schwartz also says he finds Wise's undoubtedly lucrative Nike appointment in "bad taste" given the recession and corresponding layoffs at the university. Wise earns $535,000 as provost, a taxpayer-supported salary that Schwartz argues should demand the provost's full attention. "If she has free time, then maybe she should be volunteering to do something else (at the university)," he says.

Instead, she'll be earning as much as $200,000 from Nike, judging by the company's previous payments to board members.

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