The university's role as a consumer and institution of higher learning in influencing labor practices was a contentious topic on Monday night's "Talk of the University," WBFO's monthly radio show featuring UB President William R. Greiner.
Two callers during the live hour-long session questioned the university's business relationship with New Era Cap Company in light of the alleged labor abuses at the company's Derby, NY plant, as well as its operations in Bangladesh. New Era produces caps with the UB logo for sale in the University Bookstore as well as outfitting UB athletic teams.
The issue has been a visible one on campus this year, with numerous protests sponsored by the UB Students Against Sweatshops in conjunction with the union on strike at New Era's Derby plant. The Student Association Assembly recently passed a resolution asking the university to suspend their contract with New Era until the abuses are investigated and resolved.
The first caller, Richard, opened up the discussion by asking Greiner if he would feel comfortable paying workers in Bangladesh eight to 18 cents an hour - the wage paid to workers by New Era.
After much back and forth between the president and the caller, Greiner replied, "I would feel comfortable if what I knew was that this was the difference between them living or not and it may be the case in many of those countries because there are not so many jobs."
Richard pointed to the disparity between the wages of Bangladeshi workers and the $10 to $14 Derby employees receive per hour for equivalent work, while the caps produced in both locations are sold for the same price.
"For us to hear wages at that level really is quite shocking, because we are a very productive economy," said Greiner. "We have the world's highest tech and most productive economy and as result of that productivity, we are capable in this country of paying very good wages and we do that." Countries like Bangladesh, Greiner said, are not so fortunate.
Greiner emphasized that wage rates are relative and that the standard wage in the country in question must be taken into account when determining the fairness or unfairness of a particular wage.
"We have to be careful not to impose our sense of what is fair and right on other countries," the president said.
Another caller, Susan from Buffalo, asked if UB used any specific criteria to decide who should supply goods and services for the university, referencing charges of New Era's abuses here and abroad. "As a community of learning, shouldn't a university set standards for the community as a whole?"
"I'm very dubious about the proposition that it's the responsibility of the university to set the working standards or purport to be involved in setting the working standards either in a domestic plant or overseas," Greiner replied.
The jurisdiction over such complex issues, he said, is better left to the governmental agencies appointed for that purpose by elected officials.
"We're a public institution, we operate under a public franchise, I do not think it is . proper for us to attempt to use our economic power or influence, such as it is, in order to try to enforce domestic law or to intervene into the foreign policy of the United States," Greiner said.
Susan asked if UB would consider anything other than price and quality of a product, particularly in cases of gross and documented mistreatment of workers, when selecting a supplier. She referred to reports indicating the high rate of on-the-job injuries at the Derby plant as well as maltreatment abroad.
"No, I don't think so," said Greiner. "I really don't think that's our responsibility or that it would be proper for us to do so."
The only responsibility the university has in monitoring the practices of its supplies, according to Greiner, is that imposed upon UB by state law or policy. The president noted that the State University Council is currently considering whether or not there is a contractual issue involving New Era.
"But do I think it's incumbent on us to try to police New Era Cap and set standards for them? I don't think so," he said.
Prior to the question-and-answer period, Greiner spoke of his role as university president, the costs and benefits of college administration, and the recent decision by Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi to remain at UB, despite an offer from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to become the school's chancellor.
Greiner said he tried to give Capaldi as much advice as he could, but that the possible departure of his chief academic officer represented a conflict-of-interest situation for him. Although seeking what, in effect, would be a promotion for Capaldi is "perfectly consistent with the normal career path of people in academic administration," said Greiner, "she's done really quite a remarkable job here."
Greiner said he was somewhat surprised another university was scouting Capaldi so early into her tenure at UB, which will be two years in July. He suggested the provost's high visibility, particularly in the area of bioinformatics, and her previous administrative experience in Florida accounted for the outside interest in Capaldi.
"I wouldn't be surprised if down the line others come looking, but I think Betty (Capaldi) has decided, at least for the near term, that she likes what she's doing," said Greiner.
Greiner said that the job of a provost and that of a president require different types of energies and that the presidency is not the right post for everyone.
"To be a campus president is one kind of job, and I will tell you it's a very different job from being provost," said Greiner. "Maybe [Capaldi] will decide campus presidency isn't the kind of thing that interests her. It takes a certain kind - a certain set of aptitudes and willingness to give up a lot of aspects of your life in order to take on the presidency and I don't mind it."
He called the provost position, one he occupied prior to his appointment as president, "the best job in the university." Provosts have jurisdiction over academic programs, the "heart of what we are and what we're about," appoint and advise deans and enjoy greater interaction with the faculty, unlike the president who is a step removed.
"The presidency involves a lot of external work, a lot of ceremonial work. It entails being the lighting rod for the institution; anything goes wrong, the buck stops at the president's door."
While the president enjoys the bulk of recognition for an institution's successes, Greiner said the top administrator also takes the blame for all the university's failures. "I have to be careful about the way I behave with the folks I work with because it can be a pain to be in someone's shadow, but on the other hand, I hold up a big umbrella and when the rain and the thunder and the lighting come, it hits my umbrella."
Demands on time are the greatest cost of the presidency, according to Greiner. "Your time is not your own when you are the president," he said. "The range of demands on your time becomes much greater, and you really are scheduled and your schedule can run from early in the morning to very late at night."
Beyond administrative duties, said Greiner, the president must be openly and actively involved in politics, answer the concerns and needs of diverse constituents, serve as a public representative and solicit funds and support for the university.
"One of the essential elements of a campus presidency is you have to be in the friend-raising, the fundraising . none of us can afford to sit back and expect it to happen automatically."
He contrasted these constraints with the relative freedom enjoyed by faculty members, contributing to the attractiveness of academic life.
"Faculty members are accorded a great privilege. They have to be in certain places at certain times to be with their students, but then they're given extraordinary flexibility and freedom with regard to the balance of their time, where they do the work, what kind of work they're going to do, the areas in which they choose to work."
WBFO moderator Mike McKay asked Greiner when he planned to "take his life back" and retire from his current post - a question often speculated about as Greiner enters his second decade as UB president.
Greiner said the time to move on would come "when you're not happy going to the office every day . when it becomes a chore."
The president assured the audience that - at least for now - that point has not yet come.