A higher education software company recently sponsored a dinner for college presidents where each invitation included a $300 cash card.

The company, Jenzabar, distributed $300 American Express cash cards with each user’s name left blank.

Jenzabar invited 45 college presidents to the Jan. 5 meeting. Each president heads a college with software needs currently fulfilled by Jenzabar. The dinner occurred during an annual Council of Independent Colleges conference for private college presidents.

Roughly half of the council’s 530 members use Jenzabar products, each client college having an annual contract worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The cards were not signed over to the user so that each recipient could choose to keep the money himself or pass it along to his school.

Some critics say such an act is not only uncommon for companies but unethical for college presidents to accept gifts of that magnitude.

Giving away laptop computers was the company’s original consideration, but it opted for cash cards to let presidents use the money how they desired and not necessarily for their institutions. Of the 45 presidents attending the dinner, none declined the cards and only two were hesitant about taking the money.

Dr. Bill Crouch, president of Georgetown College, was one of the two.

“Some call them incentives,” he said. “I don’t call it an incentive when you are a long- time customer. To me, that is a gift. If you are being courted to become a new customer, it is different.”

Georgetown has been a 25-year customer with Jenzabar and, according to Crouch, this has been their only “gift” to the college so far. Many companies invest in the colleges with which they do business, he said.

However, Cliff Conrad, a UW professor of higher education, said university presidents should be mindful that taking any funds threatens their ability to do their job apart from the bias of the donating company.

“University presidents are highly visible; these kinds of things send a signal,” Conrad said.

Though Crouch hesitated before taking the money and did, in fact, use it at his institution, Conrad said hesitating just does not do it.

“I imagine [policy] is different at different institutions,” he said. “To me it is a common sense situation. If you feel you are being bought by a gift to your institution, then you should avoid it.”

The company is known to sponsor annual Cape Cod golf tournaments for college presidents and, according to Conrad, such an action is sadly becoming a common component of regular marketing strategy.

“At a time when higher education is being bombarded by intoxicating entrepreneurs, we need to be exceptionally careful,” he said. “Presidents, above all people, ought to model ethical behavior.”

Jenzabar refused to comment on the issue.