Terms of Dow gift to U-Michigan released thanks to Ecology Center FOIA

Groups call for guidelines on work of embedded Dow employee

Environmental groups and academics are urging the University of Michigan to set clear parameters for a Dow Chemical employee to be embedded at the university's Graham Sustainability Center, an arrangement that was described in a gift agreement released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Ecology Center.

The agreement spells out the conditions of a $10 million gift from Dow to the U-M for sustainability education. The Ecology Center received the text of the agreement via a FOIA request on April 6, and has posted the text on the organization’s website. Until the Ecology Center submitted the FOIA request the university had declined to release the document publicly.

The specific duties and responsibilities of the Dow employee at U-M are to be detailed in a secondary agreement which has not yet been finalized, according to the University.

"The fact that the agreement comes with a Dow employee who will be given a full-time appointment at the Graham Center raises legitimate concerns about undue influence," according to Michael Garfield, director of the Ecology Center. “We urge the University to develop and make public any guidelines for the conduct and scope of the embedded employee. We hope those guidelines will assure the continued independence of the work of the Graham Center."

A senior U-M faculty member also raised questions about the gift.

“The gift, in my view, has the potential to dramatically affect some of the University's ability to deal creatively and effectively with sustainability issues, and as such should have been, and still should be, widely debated and analyzed by the University community,” John Vandermeer, the Asa Gray Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at U-M wrote in a message to colleagues. “What was the intent of keeping it secret?”

Vandermeer’s e-mail was quoted in a critical story that appeared on the Huffington Post.

Dow Chemical’s gifts to other institutions have raised similar questions. At the University of California-Berkeley, a Dow gift created a position for a Dow employee in the school’s Center for Responsible Business. The Dow employee, formerly from the company's plastics division, leads a project on sustainable products and innovations and teaches a course in the program.

"We seem to have reached a point in the U.S. where it's necessary that businesses step forward and support higher education. In light of that, the universities need to be very careful to protect the integrity of their academic mission, which is based on free inquiry and discovery,” according to Mike Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at the UC-Berkeley School of Public Health. “It's essential that all means of potential influence by funders--formal as well as informal--are transparent to the public and the faculty, and that they are carefully contained.”

Dow Chemical is a global leader in manufacturing chemicals, some of which have led to health and environmental problems, in Michigan and around the world. Environmentalists have argued that Dow’s continued production of these chemicals suggests the company’s definition of sustainability may not be in the mainstream.

“Those of us living downriver awash for decades in Dow Chemical’s dioxin contamination view this sustainability partnership with a great deal of skepticism,” according to Michelle Hurd Riddick, a member of the Lone Tree Council, a non-profit environmental advocacy organization founded in Bay City in 1978. “Dow has not earned a major voice in sustainability education.”

“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.

"Industry partnerships can improve understanding of real-world problems and give students important opportunities, but it is critical that these partnerships do not unduly influence activities, perspectives, or the research questions considered,” according to Tracey Easthope, director of environmental health programs at the Ecology Center.

“The University is one of the few places where public interest inquiry is still rightly a priority. When a corporate entity with more narrow interests is given key roles in overseeing aspects of the research agenda, it raises questions about the extent of their influence.”

EcoLink — April 2012
An online publication of the Ecology Center

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