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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Penn State/Pepsi

For those of you who think of championship football when you hear the name Penn State, a large soft drink company wants you to add Pepsi-Cola. Yes, soon, people may think of Penn State-Pepsi­Cola University.

A few days ago, Penn State President, Joab Thomas, announced a $14 million, ten year agreement with Pepsi that takes commercialism to a new depth on campus. The “partnership” between an institution of alleged higher learning and a non-nutritious, sugary soft drink manufacturer will give Pepsi “primary scoreboard advertising rights in the new Academic/Athletic Crvocation and Events Center and in Beaver Stadium, as well as exclusive rights for marketing Pepsi products on 21 Penn State campuses and managing vending services at the University Park campus.” Since Penn State officials will not release the full contract document, saying it is “confidential,” it is not clear whether the deal banishes just the likes of Coke and Seven-Up or also other drinks such as fruit juice from trying to “compete” for the favor of students, faculty and staff.

Eight million of these dollars (presumably much of the rest will go to taxes) will be used to help build the new Convocation and Events Center as well as to support other smaller programs.

“Pepsi is equally excited about this partnership”, crowed Andy Cross, Pepsi’s vice president for on-premise sales, adding that “it’s a classic win-win situation, and it gives Pepsi an array of marketing opportunities in connection with one of America’s most prestigious universities.”

But, is it a “win-win” situation? Starting at the mundane level, is it the business of a University to give a monopoly to a junk drink company and deprive students of their choice of beverages? If Pepsi paid to consume some of Penn State’s “prestige,” doesn’t that degrade Penn State’s prestige to the level of Pepsi? Where will President Thomas now draw the line?

Let’s consider some more commercial possibilities. What do you think a helmet or shoe company would pay to have their name emblazoned on the back of football coach Joe Paterno’s jacket as seen on national tv during the games? Penn State uses lots of paper. Why not contract out with a big paper company to billboard the University bookstore and all bookcovers sold in the store with the company’s name and logo?

Why not an official snack for Penn State? An official tranquilizer? An official personal computer brand? An official beer? (That one will land a big pile of annual dollars).

It will be interesting, now that the Big Business marketeers know Penn State can really be had, to see how President Thomas is going to draw the lines. Any boundaries left to his imagination will have to work off of more than something known as “principles.” There will be, of course, a matter of price to be cranked into the calculus.

Commercialism on campus is not a win-win game. There is always a price to pay–the subtle censorship of dissenting voices, distortion of university research priorities, diversion of time in commercial pursuits and bidding frenzies, and replacement of academic openness with trade secrets.

In the past decade, on one campus after another, reliance on corporate joint ventures, grants and consulting contracts have compromised an intangible value that is priceless–the independence and freedom of the academy to speak, study and criticize freely without fear or favor.

The National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest (1840 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C.) has been documenting the corporatization of the Universities and the non-granting of tenure to freedom-loving Professors for several years. It is not a pretty picture to behold.

Indeed, commercialism once given a foothold tends to lunge for more. Penn State officials say ‘what’s the big deal’, giving as an example a previous Penn State grant to support research into the genetics of the cocoa bean with the funds coming from Hershey Foods. Maybe some day there will be a research grant to develop a sophisticated software program, complete with rationale, that transforms Penn State University into a wholly owned subsidiary of Gotham, Inc.

But then, come to think of it, Penn State is a taxpayer-supported University. I guess that doesn’t make any difference either.