Brand X

I tend to be highly in favor of corporate sponsorship – just in general. Please, plaster your logo on my whatever; as long as the price is right, I’m okay with that, really. Basically, the anarcho-capitalist Snow Crashed and Jennifer Governmentized future can’t get here fast enough. That said, it seems to me like there are pretty clear ethical problems with a for-credit course not simply sponsored by a trade association, but also, it seems, controlled by the industry group and used to generate low-cost marketing work for it.

According to the complaints filed with the Faculty Senate, Hunter agreed to let the IACC sponsor a course for which students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real.

… So how did this course come to be? James Roman, chair of the film and media department, said he became aware of the interest of the IACC in sponsoring a course, so he approached Tim Portlock about teaching it. Portlock’s specialty is computer art and both he and Roman agree that Portlock had no experience teaching or doing research about marketing and public relations. Roman said that for that reason, he also assigned a graduate student to help, and that Portlock agreed to teach. Roman said he never pressured Portlock to teach the course, and that Portlock had full control over the curriculum (this would be the same curriculum that the IACC boasted about arranging.)

Portlock remembers it differently. He said that he told his chair that he was “totally unqualified” to teach the course, but he was eventually told “you’re going to teach this course.” Portlock also said that conference calls were set up with IACC officials to discuss plans and that he didn’t feel he could challenge those plans. “They gave us the materials to refer to. They told us the subject matter to cover.” IACC officials also “came to visit” the course “to see how we were progressing.”

Copyright is “a complex issue,” Portlock said, but he said that he couldn’t really explain that to the students. “On the one hand, they said I could teach things from different perspectives, but when I suggested any kind of critical, sort of an opposite perspective, I was basically told in a very sarcastic way that that was not going to happen,” Portlock said. “It was suggested to me [in conference calls with the IACC] not to cover certain topics.”

I’d argue that it’s the college rather than the trade group that’s to blame. With this course, they were, in effect, committing fraud. Colleges sell tuition on the basis of academic rigor. They can’t and don’t promise that courses will be completely unbiased, but there’s an expectation that professors will have some (at least) knowledge of the subject and will be given a reasonable amount of latitude on how they want to approach it. It’s actually a sort of classic scam: Students pay on one end thinking they’re getting one thing, but in reality, they’re just dupes who’ve been resold to the company.

Still, I suspect that, for most marketing and advertising students, working on a campaign like this is actually far more relevant to their post-college careers than most of what they’d learn in a classroom.