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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Collegian Questions Chicoine Monsanto Board Appointment

I'm not the only one wondering about the impact of South Dakota State University President David Chicoine's appointment to the board of ag-industrial giant Monsanto. SDSU Collegian managing editor Amy Poppinga (hey! she worked for the mighty Madison Daily Leader last summer!) reports that some SDSU students and faculty wonder if Chicoine's new corporate obligations will taint SDSU's research and mission:

Chicoine was appointed to the 11-person board as an independent member on April 15. Through that position, SDSU's president will help hire, fire and evaluate Monsanto's management. As an independent board member, he said he will provide objective input.

Still, some students and faculty are concerned his position might create a conflict of interest. Monsanto recently donated $1 million for a plant breeding fellowship at SDSU, and according to a Securities and Exchange Commission report, the seed company has given SDSU $222,000 in research grants thus far in the fiscal year 2009. Between a retainer and benefits package, Chicoine will personally receive about $400,000 for his work with the board this year [Amy Poppinga, "Conflict of Interest?" SDSU Collegian, 2009.04.29].

$400,000 a year, just for coming to board meetings? SDSU pays Dr. Chicoine "just" $300K to be the university's CEO. I don't begrudge a guy for making some extra income—heck, if being a corporate board member pays that well all over, I'll do it! But when your part-time gig pays you more than your main job, you shouldn't be surprised if some of your people wonder where your primary allegiance will be.

(The Rapid City Journal explains that Monsanto is actually paying Chicoine just $195K, plus another $195K in stock options.)

Junior agronomy major Shawn Mohr explained the problem this way:

"He is the face of the university.... What he chooses to do, even in his personal life, may affect the way SDSU is viewed by the general public."

Mohr said SDSU could lose credibility as an independent research institution through Chicoine's affiliation with the seed company.

"We won't become Monsanto-tainted, but our research, to other agricultural companies, producers and counterpart universities, might be seen as Monsanto-tainted," he said.

Concern that Chicoine's appointment would compromise SDSU's status as an independent research facility prompted Mohr and five other members of SDSU's Students' Association, to put forward a resolution opposing the appointment. That resolution failed Monday by one vote.

On concerns the Monsanto might be trying to influence South Dakota's biggest university, Dr. Chicoine responds with the howler of the week:

Despite the university's ties to Monsanto, Chicoine said he was chosen for his background as an agricultural economist, not for his position with the university.

"They didn't choose me because I'm the president of SDSU. I think it was due to my professional background and my experience as an administrator" [Poppinga, 2009.04.29].

Right. I'm sure the "Current Employer" line on Chicoine's résumé never crossed Monsanto's mind.

Chicoine insists Monsanto wouldn't have picked him if there were any conflict of interest; after all, he says, Monsanto wants independent board members who can give objective feedback... which is why Monsanto balances all the big-industry CEOs on its board with representatives from the Sierra Club, Dakota Rural Action, and other groups interested in protecting the environment and small-scale, sustainable, organic agriculture. Again, riiight.

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