CSU-Coke deal is not good news

Announced last week, CSU signed a 10-year $5.2 million partnership with Coca-Cola Refreshments. The school wins big, with Coke contributing to scholarships, internships, athletics and more, to the tune of more than $500,000 annually. In exchange, Coke becomes the exclusive beverage provider at Colorado State University.

But it’s not a win-win scenario. The losers are state-funded higher education and the students themselves.

If you didn’t hear the news, that might be because it’s not newsworthy. For many readers, it’s routine to see corporate logos as ubiquitous on campus as bike racks, Greek letters and buildings named after dead people. But corporate sponsorship in public education is a relatively recent development.

Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when post-season contests named the FedEx Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl or the Bowl would launch Grandpa right off the davenport.

In 1993, a public school district in Colorado Springs became the first in the United States to place ads for Burger King in hallways and on school buses. CSU rode the wave, striking a deal with Pepsi around the same time.

Here’s how the latest contract went down. A man of his times, the Coca-Cola representative was savvy enough to put out his cigar before entering the CSU conference room. After pleasantries, he leaned forward on his elbows and said, “You’ve got 23,000 students, each one drinking 40 gallons of soda on average each year. Now, how much cash do I have to spread on this table to make sure they’re drinking Coke?”

Okay, I’m making up the dialogue but not the statistics, and not the motivations. Coke wants money for soda.

Of course, the spin around the deal was far bubblier. “Our partnership is a great source of pride for the Coca-Cola team,” said Coke’s senior VP of regional sales. “We look forward to refreshing and delighting the students and faculty.” It makes me tingle all over to know how hard that company will work to sweeten our lives.

The CSU people who pulled together this deal deserve credit for their creativity in tough times, when state funding of higher education is abysmal. This points us to the true culprit behind the commercialization of campus: the TABOR-fueled anti-tax mentality that fails to recognize not all taxes are alike. Taxes in support of higher education fund our futures. They enrich our society, create a skilled workforce and help us compete successfully with other states for industries and jobs.

We still might be a ways from the Fritos Frosh, Sierra Mist Sophomore Class or Hormel Homecoming Weekend, but sometimes, I wonder.

Big business is the American way, and we reap a rich harvest. Still, how sad we can’t seem to draw a line when it comes to education. Our schools should be oases of free expression and free thought, with no influence from well-funded enterprises driven by the profit objective. Our research institutions, like CSU, should be free to explore learning opportunities without concern for potentially disapproving commercial interests.

I also confess that my hopes are colored by nostalgia. Unless they move to Borneo after being handed their college sheepskin, my kids will live their lives bombarded by hundreds of commercial messages every day. Can’t we cut them some slack during these brief and wonderful years of enlightenment?

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