Had the UM student government looked at the career history of Vice President for administration and finance Robert Duringer, it might have come as no surprise that the university is on the verge of entering into a seven-year exclusive contract with Coca-Cola. In 1997, Oregon State University signed an exclusive contract with Coke with Duringer at the helm as director of business affairs. In 1999, Duringer was the vice president of finance at the University of Maine when that university entered into an exclusive Coke contract.
When the state legislature slashed UM’s budget by $3.2 million to help uphold Gov. Martz’s “no new taxes” pledge, it became clear to Duringer that the university would have to begin looking elsewhere for funds. As he had done twice before, Duringer found financial aid from Coca-Cola.
“It makes fairly good business sense to replace some of that [$3.2 million],” Duringer said. “Think about the alternatives. One is to lie on your back and let the legislature stomp all over you. Alternative two is to try to keep the quality of the university at a certain level so that we can have pride in what we’re doing here.”
Duringer believes the Coke contract can help maintain that level of quality.
Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM), the student government of UM, takes a different stance. On Wednesday, Dec. 11, ASUM voted 13-1 in favor of a student resolution opposing the contract. The resolution was introduced by Matt Jennings, ASUM’s student political action director.
Jennings stated that the reasons for the resolution’s passage could be summarized in four categories: “Human rights abuses by Coke in Colombia, the wording of the contract regarding free speech and options on campus, money being donated to areas mostly within athletics, and the trend toward corporate funding of the university system.”
A fifth concern, and one which may encompass these others, Jennings said, is that student involvement in the contract process was virtually nonexistent.
“We weren’t able to see the contract for four months, and this is a public document that we’re supposed to have access to at any point.” “All we have is working papers,” Duringer says in response. “Our attorney advised me that the way Montana law works is that even working papers are supposed to be available [as public record], which I did not know.”
Because student requests to view the document had been denied for four months, John Swan, president of ASUM, said that the student government was considering seeking an injunction to stop the contract until student input could be considered.
ASUM eventually obtained a copy of the document shortly before passing its resolution.
Jennings worries that the Coke contract could be the start of a “slippery slope” towards privatization of the school’s public mission.
“What’s the next step?” Jennings wonders. “Our accounting department being sponsored by Arthur Anderson? The drug industry taking over the pharmacy department?”
Swan says that ASUM is attempting to communicate with the former student governments of the University of Maine and Oregon State in order to discern how they dealt with exclusive Coke contracts, and what UM may learn from those dealings to help slow down the process.
Jennings is also mindful of how UM’s use of private funds may be viewed by the legislature in the future.
He worries that the legislature “may look at this and say, ‘Look, the university can get $400,000 a year from Coke, so let’s cut that $400,000 out of their state money because they already found it. And they can keep doing this.’”
At press deadline, Community Action for Justice in the Americas (CAJA) began circulating an online petition at http://www.greg-weber.com/caja/ asking Duringer and UM President Dennison not to sign the contract.