Coca-Cola debate fizzles, President rejects ban

By Matt Won

After three years of debate over Coca-Cola’s alleged human rights abuses, President Brian Rosenberg decided in the final week of last semester to reject the Social Responsibility Committee’s (SRC) unanimous recommendation to ban the sale of Coca-Cola products on the Macalester campus.

The rejection received a mixed reaction from committee members.
“I was angry,” History Professor and SRC member Peter Rachleff said. “It made me question the value of having such a committee.”

In a letter dated May 1, 2006, President Rosenberg informed SRC Chair and Music Professor Marjorie Merryman of his rejection of the recommendation.

“Given the state of the evidence on the contested issues, this decision to allow individuals on campus to weigh that evidence and arrive at a conclusion seems appropriate, particularly for an educational institution,” Rosenberg wrote.

On Mar. 1, 2006 the SRC, comprised of faculty, staff and students, voted to recommend that the President ban Coke at Macalester after several hearings from groups like the Student Labor Action Coalition. This was the only recommendation the SRC made to the President in the last academic year. The President took two full months to reject the recommendation.

The controversy began in 2004 when labor groups accused Coke of negligence and even involvement in the deaths of union leaders in Colombia. At the time, Macalester had an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola and only that corporation’s beverges were sold on campus. Some questioned the ethics of such an arrangement, and the debate grew fiercer as on-campus vending machines were vandalized in Spring ‘04.
Macalester let its exclusive contract expire in August 2005. Its current beverage contract is with a third-party distributor that provides the school with soft drinks from a variety of corporations.

A wider scope of allegations, such as contamination of the water tables in local communities in India, began to receive mainstream media attention in 2005.

Had Macalester approved the ban, it would have joined a growing list of colleges and universities pressuring Coke into investigating allegations of anti-labor activity by local bottlers in Colombia, as well as pollution and water contamination in India.
The SRC, a creation of the administration, is charged with investigating issues of institutional behavior that require special attention. Though the SRC has no independent power, the President has traditionally followed its judgments.

Rosenberg said that he found a ban premature given that Coca-Cola was moving to cooperate in an investigation in Colombia. In a letter to Coca-Cola on May 20, 2004, Rosenberg had requested such an independent investigation.
In his May 1 letter Rosenberg wrote that he was “concerned that a decision to ban Coca-Cola at the point when the requested investigation was about to commence would actually lessen rather than increase our ability to exert any influence on the company.”
Rosenberg attributed the delay in his decision to his schedule and the evolving nature of the issue.

In a letter to President Rosenberg dated May 3, 2006, Merryman communicated this finding and the three goals the SRC had voted to endorse in response to the rejection, including, “That the college continue to press to receive reports directly from the investigating bodies; that the college try to establish or discover what the time frame is for these results; and that a progress report be made to the committee in the fall.”

SLAC member Erik Forman ’08 helped lead the group’s advocacy for the Coke ban by attending SRC meetings, writing reports and making presentations.

“I have a lot of questions,” Forman said in an email. “Why did Rosenberg sit on the recommendation for almost two months before responding to it? Why did he wait until the last week of school to inform the SRC of his decision? Why did he wait until after the last issue of The Mac Weekly has come out to make the decision (somewhat) public? What is the purpose of a committee devoted to Social Responsibility if the reasoned recommendations of that committee are destined to be blocked unilaterally by the President?”
The SRC will continue to monitor the Coca-Cola issue and confront new ethical issues at its first meeting of this academic year on Sept. 27.