Harvard president under pressure over corporate post

By Ry Rivard, for Inside Higher Ed

October 27, 2014

Criticism of Harvard University is coming from an unusual quarter: postal workers.

The American Postal Workers Union is calling for President Drew Gilpin Faust to resign her seat on office supply store Staples’ board of directors if she won’t criticise the company.

The attack on Dr Faust, who usually makes news only when she wants to, is an unlikely extension of the union’s fight with the United States Postal Service. But Dr Faust is apparently the first sitting Harvard president to serve on a corporate board.

In particular, the union has rallied around the idea that the postal service is trying to outsource some of its jobs because of a deal it struck last year with Staples to offer mail service in the company’s stores.

Under the deal, which has since been scaled back amid union pressure, Staples employees – not unionised postal workers – would be handling the letters and packages.

The postal workers’ union, which boasts more 200,000 members, argues that Dr Faust failed to speak out against the plan. That, union president Mark Dimondstein said, means she is complicit in an effort that could cost postal workers their well-paid jobs and transfer the work to relatively low-paid, non-unionised retail workers.

“We don’t think Harvard or the president of Harvard should stand for that,” Mr Dimondstein said.

The union also took out a full-page advertisement in the Harvard student newspaper which said that her relationship with the company “sullies Dr Faust’s reputation – and Harvard’s”.

Dr Faust’s actual role – if any – in the arrangement between Staples and the Postal Service is unclear. Staples declined to comment on her specific role.

A Harvard spokesman declined to comment publicly despite the university being given an extra day to respond to this story. He referred questions to Staples.

Staples did not say anything about Dr Faust’s role on the board but said, in a prepared statement, that the company had changed its arrangement with the Postal Service and ended the pilot programme that has so upset the union. The company did so in the face of protests, including one by the American Federation of Teachers, which was boycotting the store at the height of the shopping season for school supplies. The postal workers’ union contends the relationship between Staples and the Postal Service, modified though it may be, will still hurt its members.

According to Harvard Magazine, an independent alumni publication, Dr Faust is the first sitting Harvard president on a corporate board. Even former Harvard President Larry Summers, who raised eyebrows for the millions he received after leaving the Harvard presidency but before joining the Obama administration as an economic adviser, did not sit on corporate boards while he was the university’s president.

Staples’s chief executive officer received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Harvard.

When Dr Faust joined the Staples board in 2012, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, warned her “commitment to the Harvard community must not be compromised as she serves on the board of Staples”.

Dr Faust is only the latest college president to get called out for extracurricular duties.

When college presidents join boards, they often cite the need to meet donors, an argument that may hold little water for Harvard, which graduates loyal alumni who are among the nation’s wealthiest philanthropists. Others cite the opportunity to observe the operations of a going business concern outside academe, where some presidents – including Dr Faust, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian – spent most of their lives.

Critics argue that presidents inevitably run into conflicts of interest or get distracted from their job of running a university.

In the past, such critics have targeted several presidents for their corporate board seats. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson has been criticised for being on too many boards – five at the moment, including the boards of IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil, medical device maker Medtronic and a utility company.

Gordon Gee, then-president of Ohio State University, resigned from the board of Massey Energy amid criticism of the company’s environmental record. A year later, 29 men died in one of the company’s mines. Former University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. quit BP’s board days before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, though he was named afterward in spill-related lawsuits.

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