We’ve heard from our old friend Preston Pennypacker, Rutgers ‘32, who reports that he is “in as good health as can be expected, given the horrible news that keeps coming in about the collapse of our beloved Rutgers.”
Mr. Pennypacker is deeply upset, it turns out, by the current talk about selling “naming rights” to the Rutgers football stadium. “It strikes me,” he writes, “as obscene. This business of making an old university over into a cheap shill for some brand name. It’s intolerable. My generation of undergraduates would have been over there throwing our bodies in front of Mulcahy’s bulldozers. What’s wrong with kids today? How can they let Rutgers—our Rutgers—be turned into a marketing vehicle?”
Mr. Pennypacker reminded us that the story of Rutgers’ downward spiral into what he calls the “cesspool of commercialization” is chronicled in William C. Dowling’s Confessions of a Spoilsport. “The pertinent chapter,” he writes, “is chapter six, ‘The Coca Cola University.’ It tells how, just a few years ago, an admirable group of Rutgers undergraduates defeated the Lawrence administration’s marketing deal with the Coca Cola Corporation. Tee shirts. Demonstrations. Petitions. Personal confrontations with Francis Lawrence in Old Queens. Aren’t there any students like that left at the university?”
We hadn’t looked at Confessions of a Spoilsport since it came out a year or so ago. Our interest piqued by Mr. Pennypacker’s comments, we went and reread “The Coca Cola University” chapter. As he says, it gives the full story of the successful student campaign against the Coca Cola contract. For those of you thinking of voting in the “Rutgers damage poll,” it usefully pinpoints Robert E. Mulcahy as the source of commercial contagion at Rutgers. It also mentions, interestingly enough, the episode of “naming rights” at another state university. By way of historical perspective, we reprint those paragraphs here:
“In Universities in the Marketplace, former Harvard president Derek Bok describes how corporate marketing has undermined the university as an institution whose essential forms and values go back to the early Middle Ages.
Yet Harvard and private schools like it, blessed with substantial endowments and a long tradition of academic distinction, are not the best places to look for signs of commercial penetration. For various reasons, public institutions have proved to be most vulnerable to the contagion of corporate marketing. Consider, for instance, the case of Boise State University in Idaho.
Boise State’s basketball games were once played in an arena called the Pavillion. Then the university was approached by representatives of Taco Bell, the national fast food chain. All Boise State had to do was agree to rename the Pavilion the “Taco Bell Arena,” and the company would make a sizeable contribution to university coffers. It was a win-win proposition. Tac Bell would write off the cost as an advertising expense, and Boise State would have money it would never otherwise see.
Faced with so blatant a move to commercialize their university, professors at Boise State mounted a short-lived protest. After some debate, the faculty senate was persuaded to pass a resolution opposing the Taco Bell deal. Boise State’s president struck back immediately. The faculty, he declared, were harming their own university. If Boise State wasn’t permitted to sell the name of the Pavilion to Taco Bell, other corporate donors might be discouraged from making similar offers.
An anthropology professor named Robert McCarl answered the president in the student newspaper. “If students, faculty, and community members cannot protest a significant decision like this without ‘harming the university’ then Boise State is well on its way to becoming a corporate-controlled university.
The very purpose of a university, Professor McCarl declared, “is to open up debate and create discourse about the issues of the day,” placing them in a “wider intellectual and cultural context.” Then, having flickered for a moment, the faculty protest at Boise State died out.”
— Confessions of a Spoilsport, Ch. 6, “The Coca-Cola University”