As the Dispute Review Board nears its decision regarding the University’s contract with the Coca-Cola Corporation, a conflict has developed over whether the board’s two student members have a conflict of interest. Some board members have questioned whether the two students are capable of making an unbiased decision and should be allowed to vote in the final decision because of their involvement with the Coca-Cola Campaign, the coalition of student groups working to convince the University to cut its contract with Coke. Certainly, a potential for bias exists, and the DRB, which must be regarded as objective in its decisions if it is to be effective, would do well to formulate a clear and fair conflict of interest policy for the future. However, the current student members were appointed to the board in full accordance with the policies in force at the time of their selection and should be allowed to vote in the final decision.
The Michigan Student Assembly selected the two student members, LSA sophomores Ashley Graham and Julia Ris, this fall in a public proceeding. Graham and Ris were chosen to sit on the board because they were more qualified than other candidates. At the time of their instatement there was no clear policy to indicate that their activism could threaten their continued involvement with the DRB.
The review process, which began months ago, is now in its final stages, with a vote expected to come at the end of the semester. The extent of the current controversy remains unclear, as some members of the DRB are denying allegations that the two students will not be allowed to vote. Despite these claims, it remains clear that a large group of students were given a contrary impression. It is evident that this recent conflict concerning the student members has unnecessarily complicated the voting process.
Students, whose activism was essential to establishing the University’s Code of Conduct for contractors, should be involved in decisions made in the University’s contracts — a fact that the provision for student members on the DRB recognizes. Given the importance of the decisions being made, all members of the DRB must remain unbiased. This issue is of particular concern for student members, because the type of student likely to be interested in serving on the DRB is also likely to be involved in labor activism. When the actions of a particular company are first called into question, any member of the DRB who foresees a potential conflict of interest — whether through stock ownership or involvement in student groups — should recuse himself so that questions of legitimacy do not arise later.
At the same time, there is no circumstance in which individuals should be pushed out of voting, as many observers feel may be occurring with the vote on Coke. The campaign against Coca-Cola has garnered national attention, with a recent article in The Nation mentioning student involvement in the University’s review process. The DRB should seek to continue this level of student involvement in its decisions.
While the DRB should institute a conflict of interest policy to maintain objectivity, it must be careful to ensure that this policy is not so restrictive as to preclude future student involvement. In particular, having strong labor sympathies should not prevent students from serving on the DRB, as such a requirement would go beyond preventing conflicts of interest to institute a political litmus test on potential student members.
As for the current student members, they were chosen fairly and were not violating any existing policies when they chose to become involved with the Coca-Cola Campaign. They should certainly seek to overcome their biases while performing their duties on the DRB, and they should evaluate the allegations against Coca-Cola fairly. The DRB should remember, however, that voting on issues such as Coke contracts is the job these students were appointed to do.