The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Business? it's quite simple: it's other people's money  ...Alexander Dumas, La Question d'Argent.
Commentary of the Day - November 19, 1999:

Guest Commentary by Scott Rice - Pepsi Schools: Selling Our Students to Corporations:

Two years ago at a CSU-wide conference of English profs, a speaker urged the group to adjust their antiquated, protectionist view of the university.

“We college professors,” she argued, “have traditionally looked on academia as a temple, and have tried to keep it separate from the marketplace.  What I am going to suggest, however, is that it is time for us to set aside our traditional prejudices and open our minds to new ideas.  It is time to search for ways to bring the temple and the marketplace closer together.”

And so in the California State University we are bringing them together, and almost every way we know how.  We are harkening to the corporate world which, after years of being asleep at the switch, has finally awakened to the bonanza represented by American education--the $500 billion spent annually on our schools, and the millions of relatively homogeneous, age-segregated consumers just waiting for product pitches.  Thus, the marketplace is opening on two fronts.  On the first, the vendors of computers and instructional technology are pushing their wares at warp speed.  After all, the argument goes, no reputable school can afford  to fall behind, not if it is to “prepare its students for the 21st century.”  So all across the U.S., from K-12 to colleges and universities, gullible school officials yield to the hype of marketers and strain their budgets in order to buy relatively untested and unproven technologies, technologies that will require continual upgrading and replacement.

And a second front is being opened up in the classrooms and hallways and rec centers.  Not content with institutional budgets, the marketers are coming after the students, those consumers with more disposable income than any previous generation’s.  Not only do businesses expect to move product on our campuses, they are taking an opportunity to establish brand loyalties that, they know, often last for decades.  And our colleges and universities are cheerfully turning over their students to these merchandising interests--usually for a share of the action.

Typical of CSU campuses are Cal State Fullerton and San Jose State, who display no qualms about selling their students as captive consumers to corporations.  Thus, both have sold exclusive “pouring rights” to Pepsi.  Under the terms of the agreement, Pepsi and Pepsi alone will supply campus vending machines, from dorms and cafeterias to classroom and administration buildings.  And what are the terms of the agreements?  We get an indicator from a contract recently signed by the San Jose Unified School District.

After a heated debate, the 35,000-student district recently approved a deal with Pepsi that would yield almost one million dollars over ten years.  Additionally, the district would reap a minimum annual commission of $250,000 calculated at a rate of 50% of the price for all soft drinks and 55% for all water.  And the clincher?  The more cola the kids guzzle, the more money the district rakes in.  The deal was too tempting for a Colorado Springs superintendent.  When students were not meeting their quota, the "supe" issued a memo to principals urging them to push cola sales, even to moving vending machines right into classrooms.

So we are left to wonder why universities, from whom many still expect some kind of principled behavior, would join in the national sellathon, would ratchet up the already distracting amount of commercial activity taking place on their campuses.  To walk down a corridor at San Jose State is to walk a gauntlet of product pitches from cards and garish posters advertising products and services, few having anything to do with education. To walk past the Student Union is to be solicited by the throng of credit card company reps with their “free” incentives: T-shirts and ball point pens and stress balls.  Nationally, student indebtedness has become an epidemic, some universities losing more students to credit card balances than to grades, yet academic
administrations allow the corporate loan sharks to prey on their students.  In the case of “affinity cards,” they even license use of institution names and take a cut.

By selling access to its students--who have, after all, enrolled in college to be educated and not have their pockets picked by merchandisers--the CSU is on a slippery slope.  Its campuses have no more right to sell access to its students as consumers than an employer does to set itself up as a dating service and sell the names and phone numbers of its single employees.  Schools at whatever level should be commerce-free zones, students being allowed to focus on their studies without unnecessary and often harmful temptations (the last I heard, you could still dissolve a nail in a glass of Pepsi.  On a Pepsi campus, do you suppose the Chemistry teacher performs that experiment with Coke?).  But the commercial invasion does more than exploit the trust of our students.  By signing a contract with a particular vendor, whether it be Pepsi or Burger King, the institution gives its implicit endorsement, lending authority to a practice that can cause health problems, beginning with obesity and tooth decay.

There is a good reason why we have traditionally viewed schools as temples; hence, the expression temple of learning.  A temple, according to my dictionary, is ”a place reserved for a highly valued function.”  These days that function is being eroded and degraded by America’s most pervasive and invasive activity, commerce.  If schools want to preserve themselves, especially our colleges and universities, they must protect their unique and invaluable character.  And they must protect their students, not deliver them over to merchandisers.  By tolerating the invasion of the marketplace, of the “moneychangers,” they break faith with those whose welfare is in their keeping.

Christ drove out the moneychangers because he recognized that when the moneychangers invaded the temple, you would not get holier moneychangers; you would soon get priests stacking coins.  From the Chancellor’s Office to the offices of campus presidents, the CSU is increasingly in the hands of those who do not believe in temples, only in careers and the bottom line.  And our students will be the first to suffer.

Scott Rice is a Professor of English at San Jose State University and the coodinator of the composition program at San Jose State.  The Irascible Professor is pleased to name Scott honorary Irascible Professor of the week for his contribution.

The Irascible Professor substantially agrees with Scott's point-of-view.  While any university or college campus needs to provide basic services for students, this should not be a license to turn our campuses into open air bazaars with vendors' booths on every walkway.  The IP now finds it almost impossible to walk from his office to the campus bookstore without being solicited for a credit card, cell phone, or new religion.  Likewise, he would really like to be able to choose between Coke or Pepsi, or maybe Guinness at lunch.


The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©1999 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.