April 30th, 2007
By Adam Emerson
When advertising ace Jordan Zimmerman wanted to build the nation’s best advertising school, he convened a dozen of his top managers to fashion its curriculum.
Zimmerman then shipped the plan to the University of South Florida, his alma mater. Within a few years, he sent along $1.2 million to endow what would become the Zimmerman Advertising Program.
These days, the names of deep-pocketed donors adorn more than just university buildings. College curriculums increasingly benefit from the same largesse that corporations and their foundations for decades directed mostly to research.
Examples abound in Florida. The owner of the Orlando Magic funds his vision for a sports business management school at the University of Central Florida. A dental implant manufacturer endows the University of Florida’s College of Dentistry and sponsors an elective course that trains students in the use of its product.
Students in these programs are among their benefactors’ most zealous advocates, proclaiming that their education is steeped in the real world. Officials who administer the courses say their donors fund curriculums that would not exist if left to the Legislature, which metes out funding for state universities.
But the generosity leaves many faculty members questioning who controls the curriculum.
“Are we basically selling pure higher education to corporate interests?” said Peter Lake, the director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.
The Tampa Tribune asked the state’s 11 public universities for a list of courses or curriculums sponsored or funded by private companies or their foundations. Most failed to produce a comprehensive list, but the Tribune found more than a dozen programs that donors have paid millions to sponsor.
At USF’s School of Mass Communications, Zimmerman’s footprint is large. His gift pays for new computers and professors. He pays extra to fly his executives from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa every week to teach an elective class that bears his name.
USF faculty designed a new advertising curriculum, but the coursework closely mirrors the plan Zimmerman pitched to the university three years ago.
Even Zimmerman, 51, admits that his involvement has raised some eyebrows. But when USF fundraisers asked the alumnus for a donation, he saw a chance to remake a program that hadn’t changed since he graduated in 1980.
“The bottom line with our universities: They need to advance their curriculums to the contemporary market of today,” Zimmerman said in a recent interview at his Fort Lauderdale headquarters.
That conviction infuses public university programs across the nation. And the number of programs will grow, especially as public universities seek to cover their increasing costs, Lake said.
“Years ago, it was a little taboo to give up curriculum development,” he said. “But as academic research and the corporate world blends, the line of curriculum starts to blend with it.”
Whatever concerns university faculties have about that, they typically aren’t shared by the students enrolled in these classes. Those interviewed expressed a belief that they are learning from practitioners, not from outdated textbooks.
“The program to me is based in reality,” said Eric Spevack, 23, a senior in the Zimmerman Advertising Program. “You are getting people who are living it, who are breathing it. We learn about what’s now, what’s relative.”
A Donor’s Influence
Zimmerman & Partners Advertising employs 1,100 people in 22 offices nationwide and is a part of New York-based Omnicom Group Inc., the world’s largest ad holding company. Zimmerman counts Nissan, Papa John’s and the Miami Dolphins among its clients.
Its founder and chairman left USF 27 years ago having shared in the victory of a national competition among advertising students that inspired the 1980s-era “Just Say No” antidrug campaign.
Zimmerman laments that no USF advertising class has won a national competition since.
Around 2000, he agreed to donate money to USF if administrators allowed him to help rewrite an advertising curriculum he found woefully inadequate.
By 2004, USF faculty and administrators joined Zimmerman executives in Fort Lauderdale to hear their ideas. The academics massaged them into a new curriculum, which included more specialty courses and an internship program.
A university panel recently approved the coursework, which will be available to students next fall. Zimmerman has since donated $1.2 million to its endowment.
Students, though, already have received his instruction. For two years, Zimmerman’s executive vice president, Cliff Courtney, has flown to Tampa every Friday to teach a series of elective classes, often bringing other Zimmerman managers with him.
The class work is intense, but the best students find it worthwhile.
One semester, Zimmerman flew in Papa John’s founder John Schnatter to judge an in-class competition. The winning students received a trip aboard Zimmerman’s corporate jet for a tour of his headquarters and a hockey game featuring the Florida Panthers, an NHL team Zimmerman partly owns.
The next semester, Zimmerman gave away a new Hyundai Accent to a student who created the best marketing campaign for a class titled Car Wars.
The idea, Courtney said, is to run the classroom more like an ad agency, one where students learn they must compete aggressively for their reward, or risk coming away with nothing.
“No more spoon-feeding,” Courtney said.
Katlyn Sheddy, a USF advertising senior who won the Hyundai for her performance in Car Wars, said that approach has showed her what the day-to-day world of advertising is like.
“I didn’t realize how intense it was going to be,” said Sheddy, who received a job offer with Zimmerman. “You had to have that passion. Otherwise, you weren’t going to make it.”
Gift ‘Made All Things Possible’
The nation’s public college campuses are growing with similar corporate partnerships. One of the more notable is at Clemson University in South Carolina, where German auto maker BMW has extraordinary influence.
In 2002, BMW donated $10 million to Clemson. At the university’s urging, the auto maker largely created the curriculum at its automotive graduate engineering school. The company also drew up profiles of ideal students and signed off on the school’s architectural look.
Not every university yields such involvement to its benefactors. But in many cases, gifts pay for programs that wouldn’t otherwise exist, often at the urging of donors.
Richard DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic and co-founder of Amway Corp., approached UCF leaders in Orlando about his vision for a sports business management program. In 2000, DeVos donated a gift worth $5 million to make it happen.
The program now is ranked by The Wall Street Journal as one of the best graduate sports business programs in the nation. It has graduated 120 students and does not receive regular state support. Its administrators don’t plan to pursue any in these lean budget times.
DeVos doesn’t control the curriculum, but his impact is clear. He helped recruit the program’s director, Richard Lapchick, a former senior liaison officer at the United Nations who helped lead the boycott of South Africa’s apartheid government.
On the wall in Lapchick’s office hangs a photo of him with boxing great Muhammad Ali and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Scribbled on a dry-erase board are the names of speakers who visited his students this semester. Among them: NCAA President Myles Brand and legendary New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte.
In addition to a standard graduate business education, Lapchick said he works to teach his students ethics, diversity and leadership. “I think sport has such potential to reach an audience in so many ways,” he said.
Many of the program’s graduates work in the front offices of the Orlando Magic. Students flew on DeVos’ private jet for a field trip to see the Atlanta Hawks’ basketball operations. In December, graduates in cap and gown took the floor of the Amway Arena, home to the Magic, during a game’s halftime.
DeVos’ gift, Lapchick said, “made all things possible.”
Who Has Control?
At other universities, the relationship between corporations and curriculum is more direct.
Astra Tech, a Massachusetts-based maker of dental implants, endows the University of Florida’s College of Dentistry. The dollar amount is confidential, as stipulated in its agreement to the UF Foundation. But school officials say its donation funds undergraduate and graduate dentistry training, as well as a three-year fellowship in implant dentistry.
The gift also pays for an elective undergraduate class that “provides training in the placement and restoration of Astra Tech implants,” a university spokeswoman said.
The company also provides annual training in graduate prosthodontics and periodontics, as well as surgical kits to first-year residents.
In theory, such relationships should help reduce the costs of higher education, acting as a “tuition suppressant,” said Lake, of Stetson University.
That becomes more important to university presidents, who in Florida long have said they don’t get enough money from the state to pay for the explosive growth in students.
Others, however, worry about the loss of academic control when private money is dangled in front of public school administrators.
“The first question is, obviously, whether or not the support of a program has any consequences in terms of curriculum decisions,” said Sherman Dorn, associate professor of education at USF and an expert in school accountability.
USF President Judy Genshaft said Zimmerman “hasn’t forced anything on anybody at the university,” adding that “some of the professors have picked up on his ideas, and some have not.”
Jay Friedlander, director of USF’s School of Mass Communications, said Zimmerman “never said, ‘I’m going to give you the money, and you have to do it my way.’”
The new advertising curriculum, Friedlander added, “bore the stamp of the faculty and the school, as well as the university.”
“I’ve been teaching full time since 1973, and I’ve never seen a company put its money where its mouth is,” he said.
Zimmerman’s advertising students recently have edged up in the success he had hoped would result. They scored second place in an advertising competition two weeks ago in Tampa in which Florida college students created mock advertising campaigns for Coca-Cola.
The USF team beat five other schools, but Zimmerman said the students cannot be content with second place. Ad agencies edged out by one competitor still lose the profitable account.
“We have to drill into them that there’s no acceptance of that,” he said.