October 5, 2015

Peering into Pearson

A 100 million dollar donation could have the University pandering to special interest groups.

Landing large corporate donations for a new initiative on a university campus is always a challenging sell. It requires great patience, savvy political instincts, and careful management. And when they come, such donations are always—rightfully—the object of celebration and positive marketing for the school’s victory. The announcement of the Pearson brothers’ $100 million pledge to underwrite the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts was indeed one of those moments, and the event hit a “sweet spot” in identifying a critical problem. Namely the fact that the new policy, although appearing coherent and promising, may present some unique challenges to the University’s ability to execute a truly objective, fact-based program.

Chicago stands out as a vital and unique university that supports an extraordinary level of critical analysis across many fields including business, law, science, and the humanities. In the political domain, I would argue, it may struggle to sustain a similar level of probity, as it is the most vulnerable to bias, not only by special interests, but also by the University’s dominant institutional beliefs and preferences.

In the case of the newly announced Pearson Institute, the donation comes loaded with a heavy set of biases. Those include a ready acceptance of government narratives concerning terror and security. The Pearson Foundation is a reliable ally to the US government’s broad foreign policy activities. Indeed, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called the new institute a “halfway house between pure academics and the State Department.” In such circumstances, how can UChicago provide a well rounded and, more importantly, objective education to students when the University is, effectively, a privately sponsored consultant to the government?

Moreover, the Pearson family itself represents some unique challenges. Much of their wealth derives from the coal industry (Thomas Pearson was previously senior executive of Alliance Resource Partners, the third largest coal mining company in the Eastern U.S., which is still partly owned by Pearson-controlled Alliance Holdings GP) while their private equity firm, Cohesive Capital Partners, has been or is invested in several industries: offshore oil and gas, Bermuda-based insurance, medical claims management, government IT outsourcing, and energy fracking. Meanwhile, its executive council is represented by the global oil and gas sector, international employment outsourcing, and military defense applications that the University would find difficult or impossible to confront or undermine in any way. Expectations and outcomes, then, are implicitly tied to sponsorship.

That may be especially the case when government is an effective co-sponsor and corporate donors are seeking government regulatory favor or forbearance. At Mandel Hall, a limo waited outside (attended by an armed paramilitary security guard) for Haass, a former Bush Administration official and CFR president, who then went directly to Midway Airport’s private terminal where a corporate-owned jet flew him back East. Also in attendance at the campus event were former military officers, World Bank affiliate executives, and government consultants. The event’s program notes, along with press announcements by the Pearson family, made it clear that the U.S. government’s global war on terror (GWOT), its characterizations of “non-state entities” such as “ISIS” and “Al Qaeda,” its Middle East war prosecution, its assertions as to the source and number of global terror acts, and its domestic security programs were all readily accepted as legitimate, as right and proper and subject only to further “data” techniques. But is data the right objective, or is it intelligence? Where does one begin and the other end, and who is providing the information?

It is obvious that to apply a method of scientific inquiry into global conflict is a much different problem than assessing security prices, predicting the location of exoplanets, or uncovering polymer solar cell performance. Even the law and economics tradition, or behavioral economics, are handicapped by the new institute’s data dilemma. The Pearson Institute, like the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) relies on secondary, reported data. But it’s not all data: It’s also narratives, stories, opinion, positions, edited reports, anecdotes, and, in some cases, disinformation. Generating primary data and insight (e.g. who exactly are “insurgents” and who is actually backing them) would task the Institute with a capability in investigation and intelligence operations that it does not possess, being fraught with state interference or other barriers to reliable objectivity. Moreover, the Pentagon’s recent 1,000 page memorandum on media and investigative reporting and its classification as potential “non-violent terrorism” or reporters and researchers as “unprivileged belligerents,” puts a chill on any university institution’s ability to conduct its own independent investigation of conflict, without which no true independent policy can be crafted. Would an archaeologist rely strictly on a government museum of filtered, treated artifacts to uncover evidence of social practices, culture, and rivalry?

With such intense institutional sponsorship and biases already weighing so heavily on the Institute’s culture and outlook, does an objective approach to foreign policy even stand a chance, or is this merely an example of an interlocking arrangement of university reputation with commercial and state special interests—or as Lawrence Lessig calls it, a “whitewashing” exercise, one that seeks to characterize private special interests as public ones?

Matt Andersson is a College alumnus (M.B.A. ’96).

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