A quiet controversy arose last semester when the Mendoza College of Business hosted its annual banquet for its Executive Education Department and honored General Electric (GE) with an award for “commitment to values-based decision making.” In light of GE’s recent affiliation with Geron Corporation to advance embryonic stem cell research, some questioned the bestowal of this honor. In 2009, GE’s Healthcare unit launched a “global exclusive license and alliance agreement” with Geron Corp., a global vanguard in cloning and embryonic stem cell research, in a joint venture to derive and commercialize “cellular assay products” from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).

The coalition presents what could be the largest conglomerate for embryonic stem cell research. In addition, the alliance’s work may be supported by taxpayers’ dollars since GE and Geron intend to use embryonic stem cells from the National Institutes of Health Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry.

The partnership was formed to exploit the “potential of stem cell applications in the drug discovery and therapy markets,” says Konstantin Fiedler, General Manger of Cell Technologies at GE Healthcare. “Combining GE Healthcare’s reach into the drug discovery and research markets, as well as our expertise in cell manufacturing, with Geron’s expertise and IP in hESCs, means that together we will be able to accelerate the development of hESC-derived products for drug discovery and development.”

The agreement grants GE Healthcare an exclusive license for the development and differentiation of hESCs beneath Geron’s intellectual property portfolio, a sublicense for the hESC patents maintained by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and an alliance program of scientists from both companies collaborating in the research and development of hESC products for drug advancements.  Intellectual property rights for drug discovery technologies will be granted to GE Healthcare while Geron will receive claims for cell therapy applications, according to the terms of the agreement.

Once the award was announced, the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) requested a revocation of the award. CNS President Patrick J. Reilly wrote, “Given Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, especially considering its ‘Statement Supporting the Choice for Life’ issued a month ago, it is contradictory and potentially scandalous for the University to honor a company which is in clear conflict with the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Though Reilly received no response from the University, University spokesman Dennis Brown said the following in the University’s defense:

                “There are several criteria for which a company may be recognized with the Outstanding Leadership in Executive Education Award, including significant and consistent support of our program and delivering value through values-based decision making. This year’s award was based upon the former, in appreciation for GE’s support of our executive MBA programs through the enrollment in recent years of 14 GE employees in our Chicago and South Bend programs.”

Brown also reasserted that the University of Notre Dame “fully support[s] all aspects of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.”

Although Brown’s statement holds that GE was honored for its support of Notre Dame’s Executive Education programs rather than directly for “values-based decision making,” Notre Dame’s own report on the award states the opposite.

The Notre Dame Newswire announced that GE received the Outstanding Leadership in Executive Education for “exemplary corporate leadership in executive education as well as a commitment to values-based decision making, among other criteria.”

It turns out that the Newswire’s report is a simple error of specificity. Brown admitted that “the release could have been more specific in describing the reason for GE’s selection, rather than simply providing the overall description of why an individual or organization might receive the award.” The controversy, then, can be understood as a misunderstanding due to an error in the Newswire report’s wording of the award’s description. The report failed to mention that GE is not to be honored for values-based decision making when there is evidence that it supports the advance of embryonic stem cell research. 

The university has not voiced any intention to revise the award’s description or offer an explanatory statement qualifying GE’s reception of the award.

-Ray Korson

Byline: Ray spends his spare time thinking about what it may feel like to sleep without having his feet hanging over the bed. Email him at rkorson@nd.edu . He needs the distraction.