University of Montana historians' experiment with corporate sponsorship when funds were cut was fraught with controversy





First it was the long-distance phone calls. Professors in the history department at the University of Montana at Missoula were told this past spring that the university could no longer foot the bill. Then the annual travel budget was slashed to $350 per person — enough to get as far as Lansing, Mich., but just barely, as the department chairman, Richard Drake, puts it.

"I think they would expect us to parachute in to Lansing and then hitchhike to wherever else we needed to go," Mr. Drake says.

Finally came the copy machine. When the toner ran out, the department had to finish the semester without it.

In the midst of this economic mini-crisis, one of the professors, Kyle G. Volk, came up with a bright idea: Get a local business to sponsor a course. After all, advertisements and sponsorships have become commonplace on campuses, so why not in the classroom?

Mr. Volk cut a deal with El Diablo, a locally owned taqueria, to sponsor his course, "The Americans: Conquest to Capitalism." In exchange for $250, Mr. Volk plastered the restaurant's logo on the syllabus, handed out the stickers to the course's 250 students and, on the first day of class, projected its stick-figure devil image, with horns, tail, and pitchfork, on one of the classroom's walls. His plan was to use the sponsorship as seed money for a department newsletter and other projects....

Back in Montana, students seemed unfazed by the ads in Mr. Volk's classroom and, for the most part, did not mention them. One student told the professor the partnership was "strange" but not a distraction.

But the sponsorship with El Diablo did not last long. The university informed the professor that the agreement violated a campus policy adopted in 1977 that states, "the use of paid advertising relevant to academic programs or offerings shall be limited to the dissemination of information rather than solicitation." Officials said Mr. Volk's arrangement with the restaurant was a "good-faith mistake," though, and did not punish him.

The professor no longer promotes tacos and burritos in class, but advertising persists. It's just more subtle. When he opens up PowerPoint, he's saying, "go Microsoft." The computers in his class whisper, "I'm a Dell."

"I'm not intentionally doing it," he says, "but still."


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