When Academic Freedom and Corporate-sponsored Professorships Collide

In 2002, Dr. Jerome D. Williams, a leading expert in the area of multicultural advertising, accepted the Anheuser Busch/John E. Jacob Endowed Chair in Marketing at Howard University. But the job offer was rescinded, Williams says, because he’d written articles critical of minority-targeted alcohol marketing.

           

Now, he’s asking the courts to determine whether the job offer withdrawal represents a violation of his right of free speech and academic freedom.

           

Howard University officials are not commenting, but an internal panel said the university violated its own rules that ensure faculty academic freedom.

Williams says the problem started in 2003 when, at the request of Howard President Patrick H. Swygert, he traveled to St. Louis to visit Anheuser Busch to discuss his role in the endowed chair. A few weeks later, Williams received a request from Swygert’s office for copies of two articles he had written in 1993 and 1995 dealing with target marketing of alcohol products to minority consumers. A short time later, Williams says he received a letter from Swygert rescinding the offer”

“The articles go back 10 years ago when we were on the forefront of drawing attention to this issue,” Williams says. “It was not vilifying the industry, but it raised issues and looked at statistics such as whether the marketing efforts were proportionate to the size of the community. It was not demonizing by any means. I’ve worked with the industry in the past. I’m all for working in partnership to solve the problems.”

Williams contends that rescinding the offer violates his academic freedom by allowing the decision to be influenced unduly by a corporate donor who was perceived to have a conflict of business interest with his scholarly research. Williams’ lawsuit against Howard will be filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, according to Williams’ attorney John Clifford.

Williams, a former Howard professor who had been recruited from Penn State University, is currently the F. J. Heyne Centennial Professor of Communication in the Department of Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin. 

In 2005, Howard’s Faculty Grievance Commission Hearing Panel issued a non-binding opinion that said, “The panel believes that there is ample evidence to support Dr. Williams’ contention that the University violated his right to academic freedom.”

“The Panel concludes that the only logical reason for the University to rescind its oral contract to Dr. Williams was based upon the substance of the previously mentioned two articles. Therefore, the Panel had no difficulty concluding that the action by the University was done in violation of Dr. Williams’s academic freedom,” the opinion reads.

The panel recommended remedies include, retroactively appointing Williams as Anheuser-Busch Professor of Marketing from 2002-2003; paying him $30,000 for professorship (the amount above his salary that he would have been paid for the year had he served as chair); and $15,000 for Chair Support and Chair Research; attorney fees and personal expenses incurred.

Williams said that no action has been taken by the university to act on the recommendations, and filing a lawsuit was his only remaining option. 

“You don’t see this kind of thing very often,” says Jonathan Knight, who directs a program in academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “You don’t normally know why an offer is not made. On many campuses, when there is an endowed chair by a controversial industry, person or country, the administration will weigh carefully the type of person to hold the chair.”

“As for as withdrawing the offer, it obviously becomes more controversial,” Knight said. “It might suggest to some that it was done at the bidding of the industry or as an attempt to keep on their good side.”

The Anheuser Busch/John E. Jacob Chair was the first endowed chair in the Howard University School of Business. It was made possible by a donation from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, and named for Dr. John E. Jacob, executive vice president and chief communications officer of Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., and former president and CEO of the National Urban League.

–Dianne Hayes



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