The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

Who can sponsor research?

Industry-sponsored studies, while a central part of the American research university, have prompted debates for years. Drug companies, chemical manufacturers, the sugar industry, and big oil companies have all faced the occasional blistering critiques for their role in sponsored research.

In Mississippi this week, Molly Minta our local reporter with Mississippi Today dug into a relatively small, but unusual corporate partnership.

The University of Mississippi has struck a $5-million sponsored research deal with doTerra. You may have seen doTerra’s essential oils in your social media feeds. It’s a multi-level marketing company founded in 2008 by former executives from that other big essential oils MLM, Young Living.

As Molly explained, doTerra is especially excited about its partnership with the university’s National Center for Natural Products Research. A company executive said together the two institutions “can help create higher standards that will allow the world to see the true benefits of doTerra essential oils.”

But the company isn’t just getting research into lavender oil — it’s getting a stamp of legitimacy. As John O’Hara, who leads the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi, told Molly:

Think about the credentials. If they (doTerra) throw the University of Mississippi logo on their products, it does give them credibility. Is the average Joe on the street going to understand that? Or would they look at it as, ‘the University of Mississippi is doing it? It must be good.'”

Josh Gladden, the university’s vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs, said that it does vet companies — and not every one would make the cut. “We ask, what is the history of this company? What is the reputation of this company? Do we want to hitch our wagon?”

Gladden said his office has turned down partners but wouldn’t name any. Being an MLM, though, isn’t a disqualification. The vice chancellor described that as simply a marketing choice.

They’ve chosen a multi-marketing level approach and that’s their choice on marketing. What we do feel confident, though, in is the company itself is dedicated to producing a high quality product however it goes into the market.

Robert FitzPatrick, an expert on multi-level marketing who wrote the book “Ponzinomics.”, argues researching the quality of the essential oils, just like focusing on moldy leggings or bad-tasting protein shakes, misses the bigger point — that MLM “distributorships” are a pseudo-business where the products are just props. He explained in a 2019 blog post:

MLM products – all of them – are actually bait, as cheese and peanut butter are in lethal mouse traps. Imagine warning a mouse that is approaching a classic mousetrap with cheese as its bait by telling him that the cheese is really of low quality and not very fresh or is only eaten by mice without class or good taste, while not explaining the elegantly-designed killing machine that the cheese is sitting on.

doTerra reports that in 2020, over 500,000 “Wellness Advocates” ordered products for resale. Roughly 50 percent earned any money from their own sales and those of their “downline” distributors (the ones they had recruited to the business.) And 24,000 — roughly one in 20 of the total distributors — earned more than $1,370 a month.

So how has the the University of Mississippi research been useful to doTerra? The company uses it to claim its lavender oil is the “purest on the market” and “the gold standard against which all other lavender oils are measured.”

The university scientist who conducted that research says: “I mean, they can extrapolate that, but in our paper, I don’t think it says anywhere that doTerra products are superior quality. I don’t see any mention of anything superior to anything.”

With the new money from doTerra, the university research center is now studying peppermint oil. After that? Maybe cinnamon oil.

— Scott Smallwood

+ For years I’ve been recommending The Dream, an outstanding podcast series about MLMs.

++ From The Conversation: People trust scientific research less when companies are involved.

Our new operations manager

Nichelle Corbitt

We’re excited to welcome Nichelle Corbitt as our first operations manager. Nichelle joins Open Campus after working for six years at Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, where she was most recently senior operations manager. She previously ran their JA Finance Park® program and facility in Prince George’s County and redesigned that program to be delivered virtually during the pandemic. You can reach Nichelle here.

Work with us in El Paso

Apply to cover higher education in the border region of El Paso, Texas, with our partner El Paso Matters. You’d work for El Paso Matters and collaborate closely with Open Campus.

When we started working with El Paso Matters just over a year ago, no one had been covering higher ed there for nearly three decades. Help us continue to build this beat and provide residents the in-depth coverage they deserve. Apply here.

+ Congrats to Jewél Jackson, our first higher ed reporter in El Paso, who got a new job as an investigative reporter covering education for the Better Government Association.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In College Inside: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. New research about the conundrum that many formerly incarcerated job seekers face: deciding whether to share the job training and educational certificates they did in prison. Follow Charlotte West.

In The Job: A smoother path to jobs. The pandemic helped show that money is hardly the only reason lower-income Americans pass up college. Employer-sponsored degrees could help more people decide college is worth the risk. Follow Paul Fain.

In The Intersection: What it really takes to build a diverse faculty. To do it well, experts say, be in a constant state of hiring. Focus on belonging. And change promotion processes to reward extra labor. Follow Naomi Harris.

In Northeast Ohio: Northeast Ohio colleges vying for a part of Intel’s investment. Follow Amy Morona.

In Colorado: Words to know: Practical English classes draw hundreds to Denver college’s courses. Enrollment in the Community College of Denver’s English-as-a-second-language program grew from 50 to 400 students in two years. Follow Jason Gonzales.

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