With less than a month remaining before the expiration of Georgetown’s contract with Nike on Dec. 31, the university administration is confronted with a choice. It can either renew the deal and allow Nike to continue using the school’s name and logo on its products in the campus bookstore, or sever ties with the corporation. This decision comes with an added caveat: If approved, Nike will remain the only university vendor that is not required to abide by the university’s Code of Conduct for University Licensees.
The code of conduct, which includes clauses on ethical, environmental and labor standards, literalizes Georgetown’s Jesuit values as a force of good. These standards are overseen by the Worker Rights Consortium, an international labor rights monitoring organization which helps enforce Georgetown’s and other universities’ contracts. These regulations establish Georgetown as a place not just for ivory-tower academics, but for values consistent with its Catholic pedigree. The university must value its own code of conduct and hold Nike responsible to it during these negotiations — or else drop the partnership.
Currently, the university maintains two partnerships with Nike – one as a vendor supplying apparel to the campus bookstore, which is set to expire at the end of the month, and a separate sponsorship providing gear for the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Given the corporation’s checkered past of human rights abuses, including withholding wages and forcing workers to operate in squalid conditions detailed in a 2005 internal report, there is no reason Nike should be allowed to reject the WRC’s request to review its factories and remain on Georgetown’s contract, which occurred last November.
The university cannot continue to make exceptions for Nike. If Georgetown is willing to circumvent its values for the sake of one vendor, the question inevitably rises as to why the university enforces its code of conduct in the first place. Without adjusting its contract to stipulate its compliance with the code of conduct, Nike has no legal obligation to submit its factories in Southeast Asia to an independent audit.
Students, including student-athletes, and the Georgetown administration have expressed their support for holding Nike accountable to the code of conduct. Last month, the campus workers’ rights advocacy group Georgetown Solidarity Committee orchestrated a three-day demonstration from called “Better Barefoot Than Nike,” which urged senior university administrators, including University President John J. DeGioia, to take off their shoes to protest the corporation.
Though protesting a different contract with Nike that supplies athletic gear, last November, Athletes and Advocates for Worker’s Rights, an organization comprised of multiple sports teams and student advocates, implored the university to cut off the contract with a letter addressed to DeGioia. They also covered the Nike logos of their Georgetown athletic apparel in protest. In April, after months of campaigning, DeGioia acquiesced to the campaign spearheaded by student-athletes and submitted a letter to Nike stressing the importance of Georgetown’s code of conduct and urging cooperation with the WRC.
However, merely penning a letter then assuming business as usual is not enough. Nike, a multinational corporation with $30 billion of annual income, can afford to conform to the ethical principles enshrined in Georgetown’s code of conduct without losing revenue. If Georgetown forces these ethical principles on Nike, the university would join a cohort of universities including Cornell and Brown who have had student-impacted contract negotiations with household-name brands such as Nike.
Georgetown prides itself as an institution with a conscience that emphasizes dignity and integrity over its value as a brand. But in allowing Nike to conduct its affairs with no ethical oversight, the university becomes hypocritical, as it shows that its priorities lie with profits rather than its values. Georgetown can claim if it holds Nike to task in honoring a code of conduct that protects the worth of every worker.
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