Opinions
Alison Gowling/The Gauntlet

The perils of exclusivity in academia

Landmark lawsuit won by The Ubyssey opens the door to enforcement of accountable administration

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A little-known but extremely exciting fact: The Gauntlet used to house the last working RC Cola vending machine in all of Christendom. One dark day back in 1997, jack-booted "repair-men" from the Pepsi corporation arrived to take the antique machine in for "servicing." It has never been seen since.

1997 was--by no coincidence--the year the University of Calgary joined ranks with cash-starved public institutions across North America and signed an exclusivity contract with Pepsi. Nothing but Pepsi beverages can be sold on campus, in return for an undisclosed fee and who-knows-what other undisclosed conditions (if any). Our contract is rumoured to be similar to the one the University of British Columbia entered into with the Coca-Cola Co. in 1995--the first contract of its kind in Canada.

Well, from the UBC this week came the rather spine-tingling news that--thanks to a six-year lawsuit courtesy UBC's student newspaper The Ubyssey--Coca-Cola has to divulge the terms of its deal with UBC. The BC Supreme Court's decision means students at the U of C have a good chance of forcing Pepsi to reveal the terms here. All we need is a willing litigant.

You may very well ask: Why is it important to know the terms of the contract? And why would the companies want to keep the terms secret, anyway?

For their part, companies maintain the gag order in order to "protect their competitiveness." Essentially, Pepsi doesn't want Coke knowing what pitch the dead-broke U of C administrators swung at, because Coke might try to force a similarly low amount on, say, the University of Lethbridge. Many students, alumni, faculty and members of the public don't buy the "competitive" line and say they "deserve" to know the terms. The U of C is a publicly funded institution, which must answer to taxpayers in terms of where it gets its money and what it does with it. The public has a right to speak up if the U of C took money from, say, the Ku Klux Klan, or if it started offering courses on Holocaust denial. It's easy to forget, but the U of C must answer to the taxpaying public. This responsibility should preclude them from entering into secret funding deals with Pepsi.

Remember, these deals aren't made out of corporate benevolence. In some US states, where public institutions and their respective corporate partners have to legally disclose the terms of their deals, Pepsi and Coke were found to attach some rather interesting conditions. The school (or hospital, elementary school or military base) has to sell a fixed number of units of pop every month. Every month they are beneath this figure, the school gets less money. Every month they are above, they get more money. If they sell a low amount of pop, they get very little money, but the exclusivity remains. In some cases, the target the school has to reach is several times higher than the average sales prior to signing the contract. The pressure on administrators to sell coupled with the pressure on students to buy results in a litany of horror stories and an obvious decline in the integrity of the institution and standard of education.

Is this the kind of deal we have here at the U of C? Is the money contingent on per capita sales? Is the money targeted to certain (business-friendly) faculties? To infrastructure? Will I fail if I hand in an essay next semester that criticizes Pepsi's dealings with oppressive third-world governments? Don't laugh, it's happened. Anyone who dismisses outright the possibility of corporate influence over academic matters is naive and should read some of the stories coming out of the US (where they have a head-start over us regarding these sorts of contracts).

It would be nice to know the terms of our Pepsi deal so that we (who foot a significant chunk of the U of C's bills) can let Administration know whether we approve, or if they should entertain this sort of contract again. And don't kid yourself that this was a one-time deal or that it is the only exclusivity deal currently in place on campus--or in Calgary for that matter. The Calgary Separate School Board recently announced their own exclusivity contract with Pepsi--the terms of which are to being kept confidential.

Exclusivity contracts are a nebulous solution to underfunding, and when the terms are secret, a very troubling solution indeed. And this is only the beginning. As a result of Premier Ralph Klein's 10-year plan to obliterate higher learning, this isn't the last time big-business will dangle this sort of carrot in front of our emaciated public institutions--rather, this is likely to become the rule. Ideally, we should seek other solutions for our funding crunch than secret exclusivity contracts. If this isn't possible, at least we deserve to know how badly we're getting screwed.

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