Letter to the Editor: Board of Trustees chairman brings heavy baggage

If politicians make strange bedfellows, academic administrators make even stranger ones. The unlikely partnership between University President Morton Schapiro and newly elected Board of Trustees Chairman J. Landis Martin is a good example. Schapiro condemned President Donald Trump’s ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries and called Trump’s response to riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, “an insult” to academic communities. Martin donated to a political action committee supporting Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Does he agree with Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants — including those who are NU students? Does he concur with Trump’s view that some Nazi and KKK protesters were “very fine people?”

A look at Martin’s career may offer some indications. Since 1998, Martin has served on the board of directors of Halliburton, a huge oil services and construction firm. During his tenure, the board approved a $20 million payout to Dick Cheney before he became George W. Bush’s running mate in the GOP’s 2000 presidential campaign. Other controversial actions and decisions soon followed.

A Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, was the largest U.S. defense contractor in the Iraq War. KBR received at least $39.5 billion in federal contacts related to the war. Later, however, a group of Oregon Army National Guard soldiers were awarded $85 million after KBR was found negligent in exposing them to toxic chemicals at a water treatment plant.

KBR’s questionable actions weren’t limited to Iraq. The Justice Department charged KBR with paying tens of millions in bribes to Nigerian officials in order to obtain government contracts. KBR pleaded guilty and Halliburton paid $382 million in fines. All of this occurred during Martin’s tenure as the director of Halliburton. Did he and his fellow directors knowingly OK these activities or were they truly unaware of them? Either way, I believe they were derelict in their duty to Halliburton’s shareholders.

Martin is also the founder of Platte River Equity, a private investment firm which invests heavily in small- and middle-market companies, including those in the fossil fuel and mining sectors. A 2012 article in The New Yorker stated that private equity funds borrow money to acquire distressed companies, then can potentially cut costs by laying off employees. According to the article, certain private equity firms have profited by charging millions in “management fees,” yet taxpayers suffer because private equity firms benefit from a loophole called the carried interest rate — they’re taxed at a much lower rate than normal income earners. According to the article, eliminating this rate would “save taxpayers billions every year.” Would Martin back support to end the loophole or would he rather benefit from it?

To be fair, Martin, known cordially as “Lanny,” is a generous philanthropist. He donated $1 million to restore a museum in his hometown and gave $5 million to the Denver Art Museum in 2006. His loyalty to NU is also reflected by a $15 million contribution toward the construction of NU’s soccer and lacrosse stadium.

The partnership created between Schapiro and Martin after his election to the Board of Trustees reminds me of Medill alumnus Garry Marshall’s popular TV series, “The Odd Couple,” in which the main characters shared an apartment, but little else. Their constant conflicts generated enough laughs to keep the show running on ABC from 1970 to 1975. How long will Morty and Lanny last? Stay tuned.

Dick Reif
Medill ’64