Does Dow gift to the University of Michigan 'come with strings attached?'

Environmental groups raise questions

Environmental groups raised questions about the independence of the University of Michigan’s sustainability efforts in light of the announcement earlier this month that Dow Chemical will give the university $10 million for sustainability education.

michigan logo“While a major gift to further sustainability education is laudable, it is important to assure the complete independence of the University,” said Tracey Easthope, environmental health director at the Ecology Center. “Multi-disciplinary sustainability education is critical for our future, but transparency is key. We urge the University to make public the details of this gift, including whether the gift comes with strings attached.”

Several groups raised questions about the possibility that the company could have inappropriate influence over University activities through the gift.

Industry funding for universities is common, and university-industry partnerships have resulted in important advances that improve health and the environment, Easthope said. “These partnerships can improve understanding of real-world problems and have given students important opportunities, and no one objects to partnerships of that kind, as long as they don’t influence policies or narrow or limit research questions.”

Dow Chemical’s gifts to other universities have generated controversy, including at the University of California-Berkeley, where a Dow gift created a new position in the Center for Responsible Business. The position is currently held by a Dow Chemical employee formerly from Dow’s plastics division who leads a project on sustainable products and innovations and teaches a course in the program.

“At this point, industry support for infrastructure improvements at UC-Berkeley is critical,” according to Mike Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the School of Public Health at Berkeley. “But influencing education and research is another thing entirely. The presence of a Dow executive on campus has been a source of continuing controversy and has had a corrosive effect, I think, on the University.”

Dow Chemical is a global leader in manufacturing chemicals, some of which have problematic health and environmental attributes. Dow’s advocacy to continue production of these problematic chemicals suggests the company’s definition of sustainability is not in agreement with the mainstream.

“Dow is responsible for one of the largest contamination sites in Michigan, stretching more than 50 miles to Saginaw Bay and into Lake Huron,” said Rita Chapman, clean-water program director at the Sierra Club. “Until recently, they have delayed cleanup action, which has put people’s health at risk.”

“Those of us living downriver awash for decades in Dow Chemical’s dioxin view this sustainability partnership with a great deal of skepticism,” Michelle Hurd, a member of the Lone Tree Council, said. “The EPA has documented in detail the company’s politics, delays and deviation from accepted scientific practice, all contributing to Dow’s failure over decades to address their dioxin contamination in Lake Huron and Michigan’s largest watershed. Dow has not earned a major voice in sustainability education.”

Another major gift from Dow to the University of Michigan, $15 million to study the dioxin contamination in mid-Michigan, continues to be controversial.

“Freedom of inquiry is fundamental to the academic mission, but the insertion of Dow Chemical in U-M’s academic programming on sustainability raises questions about the independence of the programs,” according to Cyndi Roper, Michigan director of Clean Water Action.

EcoLink — March 2012 Ecolink
An online publication of the Ecology Center

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