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Burk pursues campaign to the limit

There is a fine line between advocating corporate responsibility and infringing on the personal freedoms of a corporate executive. Women's rights advocate Martha Burk clearly crossed that line when she sent letters to six members of the Augusta National Golf Club asking them for "on-the-record statements reconciling their memberships in Augusta." Granted, Burk is right to ask the prestigious club to reconsider its membership policy toward women. While she was successful in preventing corporate sponsorship for the Masters tournament, last week she crossed the line in her actions.

Last Thursday, six members of Augusta received letters from Burk asking them to reconsider their membership with the Club in light of the Club's stance on women members. Since it was founded in 1931, Augusta has yet to accept female members.

Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, was essentially asking these six members to make "on the record statements" about their personal choices regarding Augusta. The letters went out to several top executives of major American corporations, including Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill and JP Morgan Chase CEO William Harrison.

This is where she overstepped her boundary. It is one thing for Burk to demand that corporations adhere to their anti-discrimination policies when it comes to the sponsorship of events. It is another to request that an executive of the company personally follow the company policy when it comes to his individual membership.

Membership to Augusta is a mysterious process. The Club tries to keep its membership level at around 300, and according to USA Today, the waiting list for membership is around 300 as well. Potential members are nominated by current members, and Club President William Johnson makes the final decision on whether one is admitted. For a member to be accepted into the highly selective club, another member must either pass away or decline membership.

The behavior guidelines of the Club are strict as well. No one speaks about or on behalf of the club to the press except for Johnson. No one is allowed to wear the Club's famed green jacket off the course. One member has even been kicked out because it was discovered that he had two wives, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The rules and exclusiveness of Augusta have been inherent in the Club since it was created by golf legend Bobby Jones and businessman Clifford Roberts. It did not admit its first black member until 1990. When Burk created controversy trying to get the Club to admit women, Johnson said that Augusta will not be "bullied" into making decisions "at the point of a bayonet."

This was shown in Augusta's decision to forego corporate sponsorship at this year's Masters tournament after Burk tried to pressure corporations into withdrawing sponsorship from the event.

But Burk does not understand that while a corporation may behave one way, an individual company executive may behave in another. While it is fine to criticize a corporation for hypocritical anti-discriminatory practices in this case, it is nobody's business whether an individual company executive is a member of Augusta.

An executive has a professional life and a private life. He is entitled to both, and he is entitled to keep them separate. There has been no evidence that by joining Augusta, these executives have influenced the company toward discriminatory practices. In fact, JP Morgan Chase is slated to be recognized by the Business Women's Network at a Women and Diversity Leadership Summit this month.

Had the executive's private life influenced decisions made in the executive's professional life, then Burk may have a point in making her request. But this is not the case.

 

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