Saturday, July 21, 2007

Wellmark, Mason and "The Issue"

July 21, 2007, 11:10 a.m., 1:15 p.m.

What Wellmark Buildings Cost; President Mason's Revelation; Spotting the Issues

Your Health Insurance Dollars at Work

How much is Wellmark willing to pay to have a building on which it can hang its name? The company has already bought a number of parcels of land around Des Moines at prices ranging from $124,000 to $283,000 an acre -- a total of over $11 million for 66 acres. It's now paying architects an undisclosed sum to design buildings on each of four possible locations -- because it can't yet decide which it wants to actually use. (The other parcels will be kept as an "investment." Whaaa?! This profit-maximizing "non-profit" health-coverage-denying insurance company is investing in Des Moines real estate?) It's willing to admit the cost of this building will run at least $100 million. Kind of puts its offer to name the UI College of Public Health after itself for a mere $15 million in perspective, doesn't it? (Note to self: Go watch "Sicko" again.)

S.P. Dinnen, "Wellmark acquires more land in W.D.M.; Insurer has not decided whether to stay in downtown D.M. or move," Des Moines Register, July 21, 2007

I came upon another story, more directly related to the UI college naming controversy, that takes on significance not so much for what it reports -- by now familiar to readers of this blog -- but for where it appears. "University of Iowa Considers Naming Health College After Wellmark," July 18, 2007. Where was the story? In the online version of the Insurance Journal. I wasn't formerly aware of this publication, but intuition tells me it's probably written and read by those in the insurance business. And the remarkable thing was that those (presumably insurance industry executives and employees) who commented about the story were almost as universally aghast at the prospect of naming a health college after a health insurance company as Wellmark's most severe critics on the UI campus.

It was reminiscent of the "Optiva" naming controversy, when I discovered that there is an industry of folks who are paid big bucks to come up with "branding" names for corporations -- and that their own blogs and Web sites were almost universally critical of the UICCU's choice of the "Optiva" name (for which one of their colleagues had been very well paid).

Meanwhile, while editorially endorsing health care for kids -- something I've long advocated as what one would hope would be a politically viable start on health care for Americans -- the Register notes for the program's critics that we already have a goodly number of government health care programs (all told, covering 100 million Americans). It notes, in passing, the desirability of what most would call the "universal, single-payer" coverage that Michael Moore's film "Sicko" leaves one advocating and that Congressman Dennis Kucinich has put into draft legislation (although the Register's editorial doesn't use the phrase or mention Moore or Kucinich by name). (As Kucinich says, "I don't want every American to have health insurance, I want every American to have health care.") Editorial, "Push Ahead for Expanding Health Coverage for Children," Des Moines Register, July 20, 2007.

And see Maria Houser Conzemius, "So It IS Accept Gift or Get Fired," Open Country blog, July 18, 2007

President Sally Mason's Revelation

The Gazette ran the following brief bit in its far left column on page B1 this morning -- here in its entirety:

Incoming UI president monitors Wellmark talks

Incoming University of Iowa President Sally Mason said she will continue to monitor discussion of a possible $15 million naming gift from the Wellmark Foundation to the College of Public Health.

In a statement to reporters Friday, Mason said, "The issue of naming our colleges is a vital one that deserves a full and respectful discussion so that we can determine collectively what’s best for the University of Iowa, the College of Public Health, and the donors who are so important to our continued success."

The public health faculty initially rejected the gift to name the college for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, leading Wellmark to withdraw the offer. But faculty met again this week and voted to consider the gift.
It would be one of the first instances nationally of a college being named for a corporation.
(Why this was not picked up by the Register and Press-Citizen I don't know.) The "revelation"? The first display of something of President Mason's administrative style, to which I referred yesterday as presenting her with a dilemma. (If she weighs in with personal decisions on pending issues she looks like an authoritarian and insensitive elephant in the china shop, showing little respect for stakeholders and past customs. If she passes every issue off to others she looks wimpish or like someone's puppet.)

As I predicted she would, she's demonstrated she's perfectly capable of dealing with the dilemma. Like the response of U.S. presidents, who are "following" and "receiving regular briefings" on some issue, she is "monitoring" the situation. And what's she proposing to do about it? Wisely: "
full and respectful discussion so that we can determine collectively what’s best."

Well done. Home run first time at bat. Watch out Barry Bonds.

Spotting the Issue

Precision in the use of language is crucial in making wise decisions. A corporation has to address, and express precisely, "What business are we really in?" A research scientist knows it's often more difficult to frame the question than to find the answer. In personal life, asking impossibly vague questions such as whether one is "successful" or "popular" or "rich" is more likely to lead to demoralization than answers. Coming up with the most appropriate measures in establishing John Carver's "ends policies" or a management information reporting system is hard work. How a doctor phrases a diagnostic question to a patient may end up being literally a matter of life or death.

In law school we speak of "spotting the issue." No matter how good your legal theory may be, no matter how much of a slam dunk your winning case appears on the surface in your brief, if you fail to "spot the issue" regarding a statute of limitations that has already run you will lose not only the case but a client, your professional reputation, and in some instances your license to practice.

And so it is with what President Mason has called "the issue of naming our colleges."

How we phrase the issue will have everything to do with the answers that emerge from our "full and respectful discussion."

For example, is it the "naming" or is it the money?

Recently the Press-Citizen editorialized that while hanging a corporate name on the UI College of Public Health would be unacceptable, a $15 million genuine "gift" from Wellmark would be OK. Today it acknowledges, as I have argued earlier in this blog, that "The Wellmark gift now should not be accepted under any circumstances . . .." Editorial, "University Should Focus on Its Future," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 21, 2007, p. A16. (This lengthy, historical, factual, helpful and well-written editorial is, not incidentally, well worth reading -- as is Jeff Charis-Carlson's beautiful and brilliant "Bringing Poems from Guantanamo to Iowa.")

As I wrote at the time, it seems to me that the matter of naming -- as offensive as it may be to some -- is but a subsidiary issue to the acceptance of the money. It is the acceptance of corporate money that creates the actual, or appearance of, conflict of interest. This is true whether it is an anonymous gift with no strings, results in the company name being incorporated in the name of the institution or building, or the gift becomes the subject of a year-long national TV advertising campaign by the donor. The naming simply advertises one's embarrassment, one's willingness to trade ethical purity for dollars. What is being advertised, the cause of that embarrassment, is the acceptance of the money.

Consider the matter of bribes to elected officials -- called "campaign contributions." Some critics have proposed requiring candidates to wear corporate logos on their suits, revealing and advertising the sources of their campaign funding, just as NASCAR drivers do with their suits and on their cars. In this context as well, the problem is not with the candidate's wearing -- or not -- the corporate logo, the problem comes from he or she having accepted the money.

Or is the most useful issue more broadly stated?

Matters of major university policy are often triggered by specific cases or events -- campus security by Virginia Tech, or the sale of college names by the Wellmark naming controversy. While that makes one kind of public relations sense (you appear to be "doing something" after an event in the media, and thus in the public consciousness), it is as they say, "one hell of a way to run a railroad."

One of the consequences of a rational governance system (which in my view the Regents and university administrators do not yet have in place) is that such obvious policy issues as campus security and corporate ties are identified and time is invested in addressing them in advance, proactively, rather than wasting time in the fruitless task of locking all the barn doors while watching the rear end of a herd of horses fading into a dust cloud in the distance.

What is the most appropriate and constructive way of phrasing the issue -- or at least, for starters, what are our options?

Most narrowly, it is what to do about the Wellmark money-for-naming-rights offer, if it is still available. Is "The Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield College of Public Health" unacceptable, but "The Wellmark College of Public Health" is OK?

[Speaking of which, when President Mason, Iowa's Regents and other higher education stakeholders get to figuring out what they want their "marketplace" naming policy to be I hope they'll get some data and advice from advertising agency executives.

Whether or not to sell one's soul to the Devil is a a question of one's own sense of ethics, morality and other values. Having decided to put them on eBay, however; once you have decided that, to borrow from George Bernard Shaw, "We have already ascertained what you are, madam," and with the moral issues behind you, it is time to do some hard driving "haggling over price" to get the greatest possible amount of money for the University of Iowa -- or, if that seems offensively extreme, at least a fair market price.

Advertising -- which is what college and building naming really is -- is normally sold by unit time. How many days does your classified ad run? How many commercials over what period of time are you buying? How many weeks or months do you have claim to that billboard space for your message?

A 30-second TV commercial during the Superbowl game costs as much as $1 to 2 million dollars. It lasts 30 seconds. It doesn't flash on your screen every time you turn on your TV set for the rest of your life. After 30 seconds it's gone, forever, poof.

Naming a building for -- how long? The life of he building? The life of the building plus its replacement? -- should be some multiple of what a corporation would pay to hang its ad on the building for a day, a month, or a year. It should, at a minimum, reflect going rates for billboards -- multiplied by the good will value of associating its name with a prestigious university rather than just a billboard advertising firm -- especially when it is the naming of colleges that is being sold.

Moreover, it's not just a billboard. It's a media mention every time the college, or building, is in the news -- graduations, announcements of new faculty appointments, receipt of grants, publications, the presentation of lectures, discoveries from research, conferences held, and so forth. It's on every piece of promotional literature, every letter on college stationery, every degree hanging on an alum's wall. Each of these should also be figured into the price -- because they all have a marketplace value.]
More generally, what should be our college corporate naming policies generally -- Wellmark aside? Beyond that, what about the corporate naming of other things -- buildings, rooms, "chairs" for professors -- or in an auditorium?

Naming, aside, what about the acceptance of corporate funding generally? To the extent there is a concern about a conflict of interest, or the possibility of a perception that research results might be manipulated to favor a donor, is that only a problem when there is a relationship between the donor and the recipient (as with a Wellmark genuine gift to a College of Public Health -- say, without naming rights), or would it be a problem even if there was no such direct relationship so long as there was a university unit somewhere that was related to the donor (say, a Wellmark gift to the College of Engineering -- or such a gift in exchange for naming it "The Wellmark College of Engineering") but no statistically significant relationship between the donor and the recipient university unit?

What about a gift from a corporation with which the University does business, and is therefore in a quasi-adversarial relationship in negotiating payments for goods or services -- such as Wellmark?

What about the granting of monopoly rights to a corporation to the exclusion of its competitors -- such as the UI contract with Coca Cola -- or profiting from relationships with any corporation pushing products to UI students that are not necessarily in their best interest (e.g., foods contributing to obesity, credit cards with onerous terms or student loans providing kick-backs to the University)?

What about providing a service to a given corporation which, while it has some slight societal benefit and research/academic elements, primarily benefits a single corporation's bottom line -- such as clinical trials of copycat pharmaceutical products?

More generally, should our corporate relations policies include an evaluation of the ethics and morality of the firm (and if so by whose standards)? Should the law school refuse to permit law firms to interview in the law school once they have had a given number of sexual harassment claims, or disbarment of partners? Would it be OK to name the College of Public Health the "Wellmark Foundation College of Public Health" but not OK to name the University the "Hustler Magazine Foundation University"? Would it be somehow better to contract with fruit and vegetable juice vending machine companies than sugared soft drink companies? Should the UI's endowment fund investments take into account various measures of corporations' "social responsibility"? Ditto for purchase of clothing with various UI logos? Is there a decisional distinction between accepting advertising from a gambling casino (over the protests of the NCAA) and, say, Adventureland?

Sure, we want to provide community service, we need to interact with and provide measurable benefits to the people of Iowa, but do we want to draw a distinction between that which benefits people generally and that which primarily benefits "economic growth" by increasing the profits of a given company?

Does the college make a difference? For example, are there corporate relationships that would be appropriate for the College of Business that would be inappropriate for the English Department -- or do the ethical issues actually cut the other way? Ditto for, say, the College of Law providing the mandated Continuing Legal Education programs for Iowa's lawyers -- or any UI college providing a training program in response to a given corporation's expressed need for future employees with corporation-specific knowledge and skills (as distinguished from, for example, just more "science and math").

Do we want to continue to operate a "non-commercial" radio station with funding (and program interruptions) from commercials? (After all, the call letters "WSUI" were acquired by the University in the early 1920s when they stood for what was then the "State University of Iowa," or "SUI.")

Maybe we don't want to get into all of these related issues. But we might at least want to consider, before rejecting the idea out of hand, the possible benefits of doing so.

Because the underlying, fundamental issue -- one that is going to continue to arise in hundreds of contexts over the years ahead -- is the extent to which we either want to continue to encourage or to resist, the rapid transition from an academy pursuing knowledge to one pursuing wealth, from a focus on "we" to "me," from a "Great Society" of social programs for all to a privatized and corporatized profit-maximizing marketplace primarily benefiting the wealthy few, from the values of education and culture to those of conspicuous consumption and hedonism, from a nation that mixes corporatized services with socialized schools, libraries, parks, police, fire protection and armies to one in which all is for-profit and for sale, from one in which many decisions are still made on Main Street to one in which all decisions are made on Wall Street.

That is the "full and respectful discussion" I think we first need. Out of that discussion the policies will flow with relative ease -- whatever our preferences may end up dictating they should be.

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Anonymous said...

You invent evidence and twist facts to support your arguments. You rip into people for things you do yourself.

That you think of yourself as some sort of self-appointed "voice of reason" and "champion of the people" is amusing.

You are nothing more than an overly-opinionated spin-meister.

Anonymous said...

Isn't posting opinions the point of blogs?

I am more a Libertarian than Prof Johnson, but I think he has an honest take on the issues. I disagree with it at times.

I am in agreement on the conflict of interest with something like Wellmark and a college involving health care. That being said health care is a more emotional issue than something like accounting. Yet, no one says much about the Big six (or whatever it is now) basically telling the schools what to teach with FASB right in tow.

I'm just sayin.....