Blog Post

Shell Oil and the Privatization of the University

As I was walking around campus today I saw that Shell Oil was holding a recruiting event on the Engineering Quad, the "Shell Campus Pit Stop Challenge". (See images below.) Evidently this was designed as a game or entertainment, involving, in their words, a "fast-paced, pit-stop-style event where you and your teammate will race against the clock for the fastest time", which will hopefully result in you "ask[ing] a recruiter how to become part of [their] winning team." For those of you not in the know, Shell Oil has been implicated in a number of deaths of environmental activists in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, most notably that of Ken Saro-Wiwa. A good overview of these issues comes from a Human Rights Watch report from 1999.

I was disgusted to see Shell on the Cornell Campus, especially given our school's history. In 1972 students and community members occupied a campus building, partially in protest of Gulf Oil's actions in then-Portuguese Angola. This occupation, and the debates that preceded and followed it, lead to Cornell's divestment from Gulf Oil. Thus, seeing Shell Oil on campus was a rude awakening; I had naively assumed that the previous events would have lead to a more heightened sensibility amongst the engineering school administration to the relationships between corporations and repressive regimes.

But this speaks to a wider problem, that of the privatization of the university. Especially if you're in engineering, you constantly find yourself bombarded by corporatism. Even more insidiously, however, is the ways in which corporations insinuate themselves in the daily life of academics. This has become quite apparent at Cornell as the administration considers a move of all of our e-mail, scheduling, and calendar infrastructure to the proprietary Microsoft Exchange system. More troubling, however, is their consideration of outsourced software packages like Microsoft Live or Google App for Education for the undergraduate population. There are a number of vitally important questions here: are students' emails going to be data mined for advertisements? Will they be used to train Microsoft or Google's search algorithms? Who is financially gaining (within and without the university) by paying these external vendors? Why are we deciding that values like efficiency or money are more important than others, like openness or reflection? Why must the University (with a capital-U) be in the Business (capital-B) of supporting capitalist endeavors, rather than taking the time to develop the open-source alternatives that exist, and releasing those improvements back to the community? Isn't that in the charter for land-grant institutions like Cornell? This all speaks to the obvious, but often forgotten, role that infrastructure, and especially cyberinfrastructure, plays in our daily lives, and the political implications of choosing one type of infrastructure over another.

These are deep, deep questions that the University in America must face at this time in its history. Is the University going to continue to support big businesses over the community? Or is it going to return to its idealistic values of old, values that seem so hopeless these days, of providing an alternative space/place for the development of different realities that, in the cheesy but still true phrase, "make the world a better place"?

shell at cornell

shell at cornell

shell at cornell



I wholeheartedly agree.


Great questions, and I share your concerns. BUT . . I've ranted about the role of corporations in our government, our schools and our personal lives all over the place, so instead of rehashing all that, I'd like to play devil's advocate.

I'm in a program that uses corporate money to fund a lot of graduate students through research programs like C3. While there are legitimate and serious questions to raise about those kinds of relationships, many students come here to study popular culture, or film, or video games, or media convergence, or how companies like Google are changing the way we relate to the web. And, well, if you want to understand these kinds of things, it makes sense to go to the companies producing them. In fact, if you want to make any kind of change in these areas, you have to work with corporations. Don't think of it as "them" taking from us, but as us exerting influence over them. It's a negotiation.

I'm at MIT, a university that I don't think could get any cozier with corporatiions . It's also home to Richard Stallman. Go figure. Universities are not pure places, nor should we expect them to be when we don't live in a pure world (whatever that would mean). Many graduate students (and all faculty) are funded by university money, a lot of which, I'd venture to say, is invested in business. Universities can, and have, used the power of these investments to push for human rights, as in the case of South Africa, and now in Darfur. I think you're right to question what role business should have in higher learning, and what it means for the university to be privatizing its responsibilities (we've done that in prisons, and look where it's gotten us), but I don't know that it's an either/or kind of thing. The community just has to work out what it feels is an ethical and appropriate way to relate to business, and abide by those values.