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Monday, October 26, 2009

Monsanto State University in the Sacrosanct State of Sanford

The small-minded, mean, and ignorant carping of the small-town cafes has been interjected into the discussion of SDSU President David Chicoine's dual service on the board of Monsanto, for which he gets paid $195,000 plus that same amount in stock.  That amounts to a value of $380,000 compared to his annual salary at SDSU of $320,000.

 I am not sure at what point it became permissible for a university president to serve for remuneration beyond expenses and professional courtesies to facilitate that service.  In my time as a faculty member, such service would be assumed to be a conflict of interest between the disinterested research function of the university and the pecuniary interests of a corporation.   There are severe restrictions on faculty members who engage in outside consultation as governed by the Regents Policy Manual and the collective bargaining agreement.    However, the concept of management of colleges and universities has changed from regarding their presidents as the lead professors and academic officers to that of  corporate CEOs.  

In the latter part of the 20th century, it became a popular cant to run academic institutions like businesses.  In accepting that cant and the status of power and rank it served, academic presidents and school superintendents began calling themselves CEOs.  It fulfills America's deep longing for royalty and provides an escape for the indignities of equality for many.  In America becoming a CEO and being asked to serve on corporate boards is the equivalent of induction into the privileges of royalty,  and few people ask just what CEOs do that earns them so much power and money.  Our recent history with CEOs in finance, banking, and automobile manufacturing have made clear that the privileges they receive have nothing to  do with their knowledge, skills, and performance.  The conservative defense of corporate American is clearly based upon the desire to conserve medieval notions of rank and privilege and class.  

The evolution of academic administration from the collegial generation and transmission of knowledge to  corporate authoritarianism is just another aspect of the shifting political and social mindset.  David Chicoine comes from the College of Agriculture of the University of Illinois, which has many and long dalliances with corporations.  When I was the farm and business editor of an Illinois newspaper, the University's relationship with corporations was of constant concern with faculty, students, and members of the agricultural community. Some Illinois College of Agriculture faculty members went to great lengths to make known that they did not approve of or participate in the coziness with corporations.   Colleges of agriculture at sister universities in the Midwest were often harshly critical of the U. of Illinois' corporate ties.   They thought that those ties formed the channels through which independent, family-owned farms were being integrated into corporate agri-business.  They warned that  work as professors was shifting from devising and teaching in support of independent farmers to serving the corporate interests of agri-business.  While the merits of corporate-run agri-business versus independent, free-market agricultre  may be argued, the fact is that independent, free-market agriculture is a nostalgic memory.  

The professors who work under President Chicoine must abide by a policy in regard to their outside work and consultation.  It is:

Professional employees should avoid entering into outside employments, occupations or endeavors for profit of any kind that may reasonably be thought to influence the decisions that they make in their capacity as Board employees, the degree of thought and effort that they devote to their responsibilities as Board employees or, in any other manner, the loyalty and diligence with which they pursue the best interests of the Board and of the students and citizens who rely upon the Board and its employees. [South Dakota Board of Regents Policy 4:35.B]

State Representative Bernie Hunhof and State Senator Frank Kloucek have raised the issue stated in this policy in regard to President Chicoine.  The policy is based upon the fact that academic work and corporate interests are often in conflict.  The conflict is that academic research and teaching when conducted with full academic freedom and integrity does not always produce results that will serve corporate interests.  Just as corporations lobby Congress to formulate legislation that serves their interest rather than that of the general public,  corporations exert the same kind of influence over research and teaching in which they get involved.  They do not give financial support to programs that might raise criticism about their corporate practices.  The outstanding example of corporate-directed research is the paying of "scientists" to deny the link between tobacco usage and cancer in humans.  

Monsanto is involved in many ventures about which there are questions of environmental deterioration and hazards.  Agricultural research is much involved in assessing the effects of agricultural chemicals, bio-engineered crops,  agricultural practices, and marketing arrangements.  Agricultural researchers on one hand are supposed to operate free of outside influences, but still their projects are often funded and sponsored by large corporations.  The question is if SDSU researchers come up with information that is detrimental to Monsanto,  will a Monsanto board member vote in detriment to the corporation or to the university.

President Chicoine has been cited for supporting Democratic candidates.  South Dakota conservatives have tried to portray this as Democrats as turning against their own, as if a political party cannot engage in making critical examinations of issues.  The suggestion is that raising the question of whether the state's written policy applies to President Chicoine is a kind of betrayal of loyalty.

This comes in the context of a middle-school maligning of Sen. Frank Kloucek, even to the circulation of a story that a legislator gave him a suit to wear when he first entered the legislature.  While some recognize that some wit-challenged bloggers and their commenters regard crude insult and abuse as clever political repartee,  the fact is that low-minded scurrility represents the way a dominant political faction thinks and operates.  The reality is that such petty and mean scurrility represents the way the state's academic institutions are perceived and influence.

Ultimately,  President Chicoine has a career choice of whether he side with those low-level serfs in the classrooms or identifies with the royalty who is exempt from questions of conflicts of interest.  More likely, the Regents will find some way to  amend their policies to forestall anyone having to make such a decision.

In the dominant party,  academic integrity, freedom, and intellectual process are not considerations, as long as the royalty gets its money and privileges. 



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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States