U of O leaves WRC

The University of Oregon’s often-turbulent relationship with the anti-sweatshop Worker Rights Consortium is over.

UO President Dave Frohnmayer said Monday he has accepted the advice of the university’s attorney that the UO can’t belong to either the student-backed WRC or the Nike-backed Fair Labor Association. The attorney’s opinion was based on a new policy adopted without fanfare last month by the state Board of Higher Education.

The business practices policy prevents universities from limiting competition for any reason other than inability to perform, evidence of illegal activity or reasons specifically allowed by state law. It’s aimed at ensuring that Oregon University System business dealings are carried out in a “straightforward and politically impartial manner.”

After studying the issue and speaking with the board attorney who drafted the policy, UO general counsel Melinda Grier issued a final determination Monday. Frohnmayer is awaiting a university committee report before taking any final action, but there is almost no chance the report will challenge Grier’s interpretation.

Grier said the board policy means universities can’t affiliate with the labor rights groups because both impose requirements on manufacturers that go beyond what the policy allows. For example, both groups require adherence to codes of conduct that set rules on wages, workplace conditions and monitoring for companies that produce goods bearing university names or logos.

The policy also blocks enforcement of the UO’s own code of conduct for such companies – and the codes of other state universities.

By accepting Grier’s interpretation, Frohnmayer is bringing an end to almost two years of debate and tumult that roused a small but dedicated group of student activists last year, only to see the issue fade from the campus scene this year.Frohnmayer said the experience made clear the need for a more thoughtful approach to international labor standards.

“I think every university that has been at all involved in this issue, whether it led to membership in the WRC or the FLA or both, has recognized the enormous complexity of the issues involved,” he said. “And it’s clear the debate has to move beyond cliches and slogans and turn to the hard work of how you really handle these things. I don’t think there’s an institution in this country that has been down this path that would go down it again without much deeper thought and study.”The policy extricates the UO from an issue that became much more complex just weeks after Frohnmayer joined the WRC. That’s when the university lost the backing of alumnus and Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who had been its most generous donor.

Later, as the WRC struggled to get off the ground, Frohnmayer questioned whether the group would be able to carry out the ambitious task of international factory monitoring it had set out. The split with the group grew even wider when Grier advised Frohnmayer not to pay dues to the WRC because of legal questions concerning liability.

With the Higher Education Board policy precluding involvement with the group – or the FLA, a group student activists oppose – Frohnmayer no longer faces the choice of whether to remain an affiliate.

He said it’s too soon to look back and say whether there are any regrets, but he said the board policy will promote, rather than squelch, the campus debate on issues involving human rights.

“The institution itself can and should remain neutral so those within it are free to engage in active and vigorous debate,” he said.

Frohnmayer said he won’t take any formal action until he hears from a University Senate committee formed last year to look into issues surrounding the UO’s membership in the WRC. But the committee already is working under the assumption that the university is barred from affiliation with the group.

English professor James Earl, president of the University Senate, said last week that the committee believes the board policy makes the issue moot.

Committee members might issue individual opinions when they submit a final report March 21, but Earl said the only thing the panel as a whole is likely to recommend is that the university set up a permanent program devoted to human rights issues.

It wasn’t clear whether the university even will need to take any formal steps to remove itself from the two groups’ membership lists. Both have sent invoices seeking payment of dues, but the UO hasn’t paid either one while this and other issues were examined.

Frohnmayer signed a letter stating the university’s intention to join the WRC on April 12; five months later, on Sept. 19, he announced he also would commit the UO to membership in the FLA.

The WRC membership was for one year and will expire next month even without further action by Frohnmayer.

The UO still is listed as an affiliate on the group’s Web site, and Frohnmayer said that at some point it may be necessary to ask that its name be removed.WRC Executive Director Scott Nova was traveling out of the country Monday and couldn’t be reached for comment.

He had earlier said he thought the university could continue its affiliation and remain in compliance with the board policy.