Opinion: Sponsorships must uphold university's principles

Brand exposure . . . Highlanders (from left) Craig Miller and Ben Smith with University of Otago...
Brand exposure . . . Highlanders (from left) Craig Miller and Ben Smith with University of Otago vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne at the Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo by Peter McIntosh
A group of staff and senior students - Dr Lynne Bowyer, Emma Tumilty, Katelyn Ferguson, Dr Deborah Stevens, Colin Sweetman and Prof Grant Gillett - say they are baffled by the University of Otago's recent sponsorship of the Highlanders rugby team.

The University of Otago has a reputation built on excellence and social responsibility through its engagement with individuals, social groups, government and the international academic community.

The sponsoring of the Highlanders professional rugby team makes sense neither in relation to University of Otago's reputation of excellence, nor in its commitment to ''social responsibility''.

As we go on to discuss, the University has had options for sponsorship that uphold the values and commitments of a tertiary institution and that would bring major benefit to itself and those it serves.

We can evidence one example. In the first part of 2013, a group affiliated in various ways to the University of Otago had meetings with vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne and members of the University of Otago Marketing Division to discuss funding for a ''Bioethics Roadshow''.

The roadshow is an initiative that travels around New Zealand, engaging high school students in critical thinking about the ethical implications of various procedures and techniques made possible through science and technology. These issues touch the lives of everyone, having cultural, environmental, economic, political, legal, communal and familial ramifications that will determine the direction of people's lives into the future.

It is therefore essential all people be given the opportunity to develop the cognitive, social and emotional ability to enter robust debate over the ethical issues arising from scientific endeavours.

With sufficient funding, the roadshow has potential to reach the 286,000 secondary school students enrolled in New Zealand. There is a worldwide awareness of the need to bring both the teaching and learning of socio-scientific issues and explicit values education into the curriculum.

The roadshow has established international connections with others working in this field. With all this in mind, the team offered this initiative to the University of Otago, requesting sponsorship to further develop activities and practices based on the positive and statistically significant results of the pilot roadshows.

In return, the University of Otago would be placed at the forefront of a national programme of teaching and learning in this essential area. As the roadshow grows, the university would also be directly accessing secondary students across New Zealand, a significant number of whom will embark on a university career.

As this initiative also involves public lectures, the profile of the University of Otago would be opened up to a wider community of potential students.

The value of this direct engagement with potential university candidates, together with the educational benefits to all students and the wider community, were made known to the University of Otago's Marketing Division and the vice-chancellor. Neither deemed these things to be sufficiently important to warrant funding by the university.

Strangely, it seems sponsoring a rugby team, alongside an alcohol brand, is a more worthy option. It is difficult to fathom why this might be, given the nebulous group of rugby followers may never form an academic association with the University of Otago.

Although the university's website makes the bold claim that it is ''Committed to Social Responsibility'', its current focus on rugby and its following in this high-cost initiative overlooks the diverse groups of young people and their families that engage with the university.

It overlooks individuals who see something of what the University of Otago has to offer in terms of scholarship and critical thinking, and whose potential contributions to the university go wider than the handful of University of Otago staff and students (listed on the same web page) who have rugby affiliations.

There is a recognised need for a marketing budget, given the current economic climate. As Prof Hayne pointed out in the Otago Daily Times (12/2/14), the University of Otago fiscal plan must help generate income to pay for staff, building and research.

We argue, however, that the university should be employing higher-level strategic thinking when considering its own marketing. This requires identifying prospective learners and recognising the diversity of that group in order to reach them effectively.

As educators, we cannot help but think the University of Otago, with its problematic idea of ''brand exposure'', has lost sight of its role as a learning institution for both students and the wider community in favour of a misguided and short-lived celebrity and corporate status, directed by the idols of the market place.

In the interest of open discourse, we seek responses to the following questions.

- In what ways does the sponsorship of the Highlanders rugby team align with the University of Otago's Strategic Direction to 2020 and commitment to social responsibility?

- What is the University of Otago's level of investment in the Highlanders sponsorship? We acknowledge the level of investment has been termed ''commercially sensitive''; however, the university is publicly funded.

- What is the University of Otago's expected return through sponsorship of the Highlanders, and how is this to be measured?

- Presumably, the marketing budget was limited, so why was sponsorship of the Highlanders rugby team determined to be the best option for a marketing strategy?

- What other sponsorship programmes have been cut or dismissed in order for the Highlanders sponsorship to proceed?

- Lynne Bowyer, Emma Tumilty, Katelyn Ferguson, Deborah Stevens, Colin Sweetman and Grant Gillett are all involved in the study and/or teaching of bioethics.

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