Business-backed course probed

Inquiry found fictional campaign fostered deception and compromised academic probity, says John Gill

May 22, 2008

Corporate sponsorship in higher education is under the spotlight in the US after an investigation into one business-funded course found multiple violations of academic freedom.

Concerns about the programme at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, focused on sponsorship from an organisation representing big businesses, as well as deliberate deception of students and the credibility of the professor in charge.

The marketing course, which was run by the department of film and media studies and earned students credit towards their degrees, was sponsored by the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, members of which include Levi Strauss, Reebok and Chanel.

Students taking part were asked to create a campaign against counterfeiting, creating a fake website to tell the story of a fictional student caught up in the illegal trade.

One of the goals of the exercise was to mislead students who were not taking part in the course, who were led to believe that the website and its subject were real.

Although the college refused to discuss details when concerns were first raised, saying only that it was satisfied there was no problem, it has since emerged that an internal inquiry has found several breaches of academic freedom.

A report by a special faculty committee, according to the website, found that "the episode raises concerns about the ethics of pedagogy in higher education".

It said: "Sponsored courses seem not to violate academic freedom in their own right, but invite manipulations of the usual principles of classroom discussion.

"More discomfiting, the course ... made use of Hunter students to advance corporate interests, and created a false ad campaign that deceived students who were not in the class. The nature of the course allowed for a casual approach to the dignity of students and relied on deception to achieve some of its aims - which were, we emphasise, as much corporate as pedagogical."

Adding to the concerns was the fact that the professor in charge did not have tenure and the course was outside his area of expertise.

The college refused to comment on the document, which revealed that the chief executive of a company that had donated $10,000 (£5,140) to support the course was subsequently given an honorary degree.

However, the report said academic freedom had been violated in several key areas. "The most egregious aspect was that free inquiry into multiple points of view was effectively blocked, despite the expressed desire of the instructor to promote such inquiry," it said.

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