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Originally published Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Critics swoosh down on UW Provost Phyllis Wise over Nike role

University of Washington Provost Phyllis Wise is facing growing criticism from students, faculty and lawmakers for taking a seat on the corporate board of Nike, which has a contract with the UW worth at least $35 million.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

University of Washington Provost Phyllis Wise is facing growing criticism from students, faculty and lawmakers for taking a seat on the corporate board of Nike, which last year signed a contract with the UW worth a minimum $35 million to the university.

Some say Wise, the UW's No. 2 administrator, now faces a conflict of interest and should step down from her new role as a director on the board of the clothing and footwear company. Wise defends her appointment, saying it will benefit the university and allow her to push for positive change at Nike.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle is calling on the provost to donate 90 percent of her Nike earnings toward UW scholarships. Carlyle, D-Seattle, who sits on the House Higher Education Committee, said he has no personal beef with Wise but thinks her new role could serve as a distraction during the upcoming legislative session.

"It's extremely difficult for regular people, living regular lives, to understand why a public employee would benefit so handsomely from a position that she secured because of her public role," Carlyle said. "Right now, we need all hands on deck working together to figure out a way to save and protect higher education in this state."

The UW has been forced to cut programs and staff this year, and faces more cuts as lawmakers struggle to cover a $2.6 billion state budget shortfall.

As provost, Wise makes $535,000 annually in salary and deferred compensation. Last year, Nike paid its 10 directors between $132,000 and $217,000 each in cash and stock. Nike this week declined to specify exactly how much it would pay Wise. The Nike board meets five times each year.

While it's not uncommon for top administrators at large universities to sit on corporate boards — UW President Mark Emmert sits on the board of two local Fortune 500 companies — the Nike appointment has raised some particularly thorny issues.

Many are worried that Wise now faces a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of a conflict. That's because the UW has a large sponsorship contract with Nike, and because a UW committee is calling on Emmert to put pressure on the company to improve its treatment of workers in poor countries.

The UW athletic department's 10-year contract makes Nike the school's exclusive provider of footwear, apparel and certain sports equipment.

James Gregory, a UW history professor and labor-studies chair, said he admires Wise but thinks she made a mistake by joining Nike's board.

"I think it sends the wrong signal to the university community and to the students. The timing is particularly unfortunate," Gregory said. "She is going to be presiding over a very tough set of decisions over what to cut, and how to move the university forward. Her credibility is critical, and this decision harms her image and credibility with faculty, students and staff."

Wise said she is taking on the Nike role because she believes it will benefit higher education and she can have "more influence at the table than not." She said she will recuse herself from all contracts and discussions between the UW and Nike.

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Wise said she has much to learn in her new role, but hopes to be an advocate who pushes Nike to act in a socially responsible manner. In response to Carlyle's call for her to donate most of her Nike earnings, Wise said her philanthropy decisions remain personal and aren't up for public discussion.

Pathology professor Stephen Schwartz has called on Wise to step down from Nike. He said Wise, who is a medical-school faculty member as well as provost, broke faculty rules by not first getting clearance from the medical school before accepting the Nike appointment. However, medical-school officials have said Wise doesn't need their clearance because she took on the position in her capacity as provost.

Further complicating the debate, representatives from the UW Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing — made up of staff, students and faculty — this week met with Emmert, urging him to put Nike "on notice" for violating the university's code of conduct.

The committee argues that when a Nike supplier closed two factories in Honduras, it failed to pay 1,800 workers adequate severance, shorting them by some $2 million. The committee's concern relates to apparel sold to students and the public that bears both the Nike swoosh and the UW logo.

Committee co-chair Margaret Levi, a professor of political science, said Emmert has told the committee he will decide soon whether to put pressure on Nike. Levi said Wise's appointment had no influence on the committee's decision.

But student Pete Gallagher, an organizer with the Student Labor Action Project, said Wise faces a serious conflict of interest and stands to make lots of money from a company that he says acts irresponsibly toward workers.

In a statement, Nike said it is disappointed that Honduran workers were left without severance, but that "Nike believes that factories which directly employ workers are responsible for ensuring that their employees receive their correct entitlements."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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