UW Provost joins Nike’s corporate board: The public’s turn
Two months ago, I reluctantly turned down an exciting professional offer to join the board of directors–a fiduciary role–of a small startup company in Vancouver, B.C. that delivers bold new technology to mobile operators worldwide to limit the use of mobile phones in vehicles. The product offering is targeted at the parents of teenagers who continue to drive recklessly with mobile phones in hand.
I turned down the invitation after realizing that there could be a slight perception, just a hint of perception actually, that I could indirectly benefit myself financially from legislative action. The reason? I plan to sponsor legislation in 2010 along with my friend Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way), to restrict the use of mobile phones while driving. Simply, the company (along with anyone else in the marketplace in this category) would have indirectly and theoretically benefitted from more restrictive state laws in this area.
As a part-time citizen legislator, I work as a consultant in the wireless, software and clean energy arenas. I have more than 15 years of start up experience in this area and would have been an ideal fit to add value to the company’s mission. I’ve served on many corporate boards. I believe I could have made a strong case that there is no specific, incremental benefits to the company and, by the way, I would have been paid only in equity (no cash). In effect, performance only compensation. If the company succeeded, directors’ equity would increase in value.
And so, despite the financial interests of my family and the weak case of a conflict of interest politically, I turned down the opportunity. I made a choice to avoid even a tiny perception of a conflict of interest. As an elected official, that’s a choice I make.
Provost Phyllis Wise of the University of Washington is a thoughtful, gracious, noble and honorable person. I have only positive words to say about her and all of my interactions with her have been more than pleasant and insightful.
I am personally and professionally troubled, however, by the news that Phyllis is joining the board of directors of Nike, a corporate position that is likely to pay an estimated $200,000 a year, on top of her UW salary of more than $500,000 per year. I don’t have the data, insight or expertise to take a stand on Nike’s human rights reputation or whether they are using Phyllis’ and the University’s reputation to gain institutional credibility. I leave that to others.
Still, I do believe that Provost Wise, the university’s chief academic officer, must set a positive example by either rejecting the appearance of a conflict of interest (no matter how slight) or by donating at least ninety percent of her directorship fees to scholarships at the University of Washington. That would still leave her with earning an additional $20,000 a year–50% of the annual earning of a state legislator–for attending five meetings. There can be little question that she is earning these dollars because of her public position and her public role affiliated with the University of Washington. The public should receive compensation, too.
We are facing the most severe economic crisis in generations. Higher education is on the front line of those cuts, and the coming months of the legislative session will be brutally painful for those of us who have to make those decisions. This move by the Provost, while made sincerely and with only the best of intentions, is not helpful in our larger efforts to convince our colleagues that our institutions of higher education need more support, and local control, not less. She is in the middle of perfect storm of perception. During normal times, perhaps this would not be an issue, but we don’t live in normal times. And the fact is the public simply cannot understand why a public servant should benefit so handsomely from an appointment to a private board.
I certainly understand the argument and the rationale from the University’s perspective. There is no morally righteous position here, only a gut check. For me, we should error on the side of the public interest.
To underline its deeper meaning, I’d like to see the Provost make the donation in a way that benefits students who are training to become the next generation of human rights practitioners and scholars. I can’t think of a better option than the new UW Center for Human Rights, which I was honored to help establish during the last legislative session.
Your partner in service,