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Taking Care of Business

Are Corporate-Funded Research Programs Influencing the Search for Environmental Solutions?


“With global warming breathing down our necks, energy is hot,” reads a recent online newsletter from the student-run University of California Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative. “And at Berkeley, green ideals are teaming up with that other green – money.”

The fusion of green ideals and “that other green” birthed the proposed Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a research center to be funded with $500 million from energy giant BP (formerly British Petroleum) and charged with investigating the “big picture” of biofuels. As BP and UC Berkeley finalize the terms of their agreement, a heated debate is underway within the campus community about the deal’s merits. Some see biofuels as the energy sources of the future: cheap, low-carbon, convenient for the consumer, and profitable for the energy companies. Others see them as a corporate boondoggle that will worsen deforestation, drive up food prices, and maintain an unsustainable auto-centric system.

The controversy reveals how the green of environmentalism and the green of profit – often hailed as a dovetailing of interests – can clash when it comes to higher education. Proponents of the agreement say the corporate-campus partnership is nothing new. Opponents ask whether a corporation can and should take the lead in a publicly funded research effort, and what may result for the school and the students.

From Celebration to Controversy

UC Berkeley was invited to apply for EBI at the end of August 2006, and the school’s faculty and administrators were soon busy drafting a plan. Diane Leite, director of the UC Berkeley office of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, was charged with shepherding the proposal. She says BP’s request for proposals was shorter and more vague than a government grant: “You had to interpret it and guess whether you got what they wanted.”

According to Leite, the proposal was not a commitment to BP: “We gave them a menu of things that would potentially be plausible.”

BP selected the UC Berkeley proposal in February 2007, and celebration erupted among Leite’s interdisciplinary team and the high-profile backers of the bid, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the celebration quickly turned into controversy.

A group called “Stop BP-Berkeley” formed to organize students and faculty against the deal, citing worries over how the money would shape UC Berkeley’s research agenda and the effects of BP-run labs on campus.

Opponents were also concerned about the lack of public feedback. Rather than bring the proposal to UC Berkeley’s full faculty senate, “they decided to do an end-run around public debate by showing it to certain members of the faculty senate,” says Jennifer Washburn, author of University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. “If you read the proposal, it’s clear that Berkeley bent over backward to give BP everything it wanted.”

During the faculty discussions after the proposal’s release, some professors raised these concerns. A group of pro-EBI faculty retorted with a strongly worded statement equating “academic freedom” with the freedom to accept the corporate grant.

Haves vs. Have-Nots

The BP deal isn’t the first time a corporate collaboration had stirred controversy on Berkeley’s campus. In 1998, the agricultural company Novartis funded the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, and opposition led to an independent inquiry. An external report recommended that UC Berkeley “avoid industry agreements that involve complete academic departments or large groups of researchers.”

“The structure was very different, and was much more broad,” Leite says of the Novartis grant. She adds that the independent evaluation of the Novartis deal “didn’t find anything wrong, no wrongdoing. It didn’t skew education. Yet [the team] came out with a recommendation that we shouldn’t do it again.”

Skewing education – or violating the freedom of inquiry in the classroom – is difficult to measure, however, because the symptoms are contested. For some, the measure of corporate influence can be seen in classroom content, such as a curricular segment prepared by a corporate source and delivered uncritically by an instructor. For others, the possibly pernicious effects are subtler – for example, a limiting of the range of viewpoints available to students.

Corporate grants can tip the scales toward a pro-corporate viewpoint, some worry, creating an imbalance in perspectives. The EBI proposal creates seven new UC Berkeley faculty positions to support the project, which Tad Patzek, a professor in the engineering department, says will draw from resources in other disciplines, thus “refocusing the hiring priorities and research agenda of the university.”

Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors points out that funding does not necessarily skew a faculty member’s priorities: “If there’s a concern that the professor becomes the lackey of the sponsor, the question is, ‘What’s the evidence?’ If the research is hopelessly biased, other faculty will point that out.” Knight says the guidelines to “establish safeguards to protect against outside influence” in the EBI proposal from UC Berkeley appear quite strong, “but … we’ll have to see what happens.”

In the case of the 1998 Novartis grant at UC Berkeley, biased research results were not the only concern. “The faculty pointed out that it created a huge division on campus between haves and have-nots,” Washburn says.

Henry Giroux, author of The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, describes this corporate influence on faculty as “subtle and chilling,” with rewards including better facilities, “time off, promotions, or exclusion from social entryways,” and says this sends subtle messages about the value of different research projects. “If you take away the autonomy of chairs and faculty senates on what research matters and what is to be taught, the university becomes the handmaiden of corporations.”

Giroux’s book describes Clemson University’s hosting of the BMW Information Technology Research Center. The college plans to hire 10 new faculty members to staff the center with “six secure research zones” as well as a corporate classroom presence in which “the mechanical, electrical and computer engineering curriculums will be integrated and taught by both educators and private-sector engineers.” Clemson received $10 million from BMW, augmented by $50 million in state funding for the center.

“When we lose sight of the tension between public values and corporate values, something gets erased,” Giroux says. “My responsibility is to the planet, not to corporations.” He says that the real danger of such campus-corporate bonds is the unquestioned argument that “the university works with corporations to benefit mankind,” and the assumption that “the public good and the corporate good are the same thing.”

“Most of these professors are only trying to find the resources to fund their research,” Washburn says. Corporate partnerships are growing today, she explains, because “public funding of universities and research budgets have not kept pace with the needs of an information-based economy. … It’s a vicious race, and many people have pointed out it’s not in the best interest of students.”

Despite the intensity of the competition for corporate funding, Washburn – who does not support a ban on corporate grants – says most researchers “can’t conceive that their own interests are not pure. Everybody thinks they will not be swayed. There’s a kind of collective tuning out of that possibility.”

1877628976_CMYK.jpg Matthew TaylorOpponents of the UC-BP deal say the relationship will overly influence research.

Mentoring Students

As they reviewed the EBI proposal, faculty and students at UC Berkeley worried they had another BMW-Clemson in the making. The EBI proposal offered BP “participation in the development, design, and delivery of courses and seminar series,” “opportunities to mentor undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows,” and “opportunities to provide leadership and guidance to energy-based graduate and undergraduate student groups and activities.”

Protests about the deal, including the concern over the seeming corporate intrusion into professors’ syllabi, led to meetings of students, faculty, and UC Berkeley administrators during the summer of 2007. A July 31 memo from Henry Stern, UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly EBI Liaison, stressed that the contract was still being negotiated, and included the following assurance: “In the final agreement, BP participants will not be involved in ‘development,’ ‘design,’ or ‘delivery’ of curricula other than as invited guest lecturers for courses, seminars and symposia.”

Leite says this was not a reversal. BP control over curriculum “was never envisioned or ever planned,” she says, adding that the curricular element would allow faculty “to bring in guest speakers” from EBI and BP. “They would play a role in mentoring students. That doesn’t mean you’re their thesis adviser.”

Access to elementary and high school students was also on the menu of possibilities offered to BP, including “the opportunity to work with the Lawrence Hall of Science to develop … K–12 curriculum modules, public exhibits, and unique educational programs to deliver knowledge linked to the research occurring at the EBI.” K–12 education is already a priority; BP funds a national K–12 curricular effort – the National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project – that receives additional support from American Electric Power, Chevron, Halliburton, Marathon Oil, and Shell. The program offers materials for K–12 teachers to use in their classes, including a unit entitled “Petroleum – Black Gold,” which includes the statement “Auto manufacturers have done a good job of reducing emissions from vehicles.” A NEED unit on “Fossil Fuels to Products” states, “The petroleum industry works hard to protect the environment.”

Stanford for Sale

Until the UC Berkeley-BP controversy, the most notable petroleum-industry donation for clean fuel research had been ExxonMobil’s $100 million donation to establish the Global Climate and Environment Project (GCEP) at Stanford University in 2004. The project funds academic institutions around the world for specific studies on sustainable energy technologies.

GCEP Director Lynn Orr, professor of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford, says GCEP feels no pressure from ExxonMobil to produce marketable products. “There’s no connection to profit for the sponsors at all,” Orr says. “If we invent something cool, Stanford owns the patent and the sponsors get a royalty-free license to use it.”

Orr says GCEP uses “an elaborate external peer review system, and we make grants to the proposals that compete successfully through the whole process.”

On its Web site, ExxonMobil describes GCEP as “another way we are working to meet future energy needs with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions.” Some wonder whether this funding is an attempt to clear ExxonMobil’s name as a notorious foot-dragger on addressing global warming issues – or to muddy the water.

As with any technological or political problem, the solutions to global warming are intimately linked to the way the problem is framed. A video from the GCEP opening ceremony features Frank Sprow, ExxonMobil vice president, proclaiming: “Unless changes [to address global warming] are both convenient and affordable, they are likely to be resisted and likely rejected. … Put simply, we do not believe any other approach to this issue will be accepted. We just don’t believe any other approach will work.”

Such language raises the question: Is the marketplace the only arena in which the solution for global warming can be found? When asked about the clip, Orr says, “I don’t speak for [ExxonMobil] and they don’t speak for me.” Gantt Walton, spokesman for ExxonMobil, says of GCEP, “We did it to help advance the science on the issue. We don’t have any control over the research they do.”

The ExxonMobil relationship is just one of many corporate collaborations cultivated by Stanford. The Stanford Graduate School of Business invites corporations to join the new “Corporate Social Innovation Program” for $25,000 per year to “support [a company’s] forward-looking efforts to create positive change in the world.” Stanford’s Center for Global Business and the Economy recently launched “Business Strategies for Environmental Sustainability,” an executive education week-long “camp-like retreat” that promises – for a fee of $8,300 – to help participants “explore what it means to turn sustainable business practices into competitive advantage.” It’s clear that for some academic institutions, the environmental crisis means financial opportunity.

A Loss of Critical Thinking

Diane Leite of UC Berkeley believes corporate contact for students is both unavoidable and positive. “You develop relationships because that’s what gets you on in life,” she says, adding that a student needs exposure to the corporate world before graduation in order to make an informed career choice.

A Stanford student majoring in engineering, business, or the sciences would have to work hard to avoid this kind of exposure. Among many other Stanford corporate programs, the School of Engineering and the Graduate School of Business sell memberships to corporate partners at $60,000 per year in the Alliance for Global Manufacturing, “a continuous learning community of industrial professionals, academics, and students passionate about the making of real things that improve people’s lives.” Bio-X, a bio-engineering institute, offers a corporate donor the ability to “prioritize the research themes and the resource objectives for donor interest.” For $75,000 – plus academic fees of anywhere from $20,000 to $65,000 – a business can also affiliate with an engineering course.

Some students see a downside to all this sponsorship. Brad Boalt, a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, wrote an editorial for the campus newspaper in which he described a construction project funded by an oil company as “symboliz[ing] big oil’s escalating destruction of the environment and its increasing influence on public universities’ curriculums and student bodies.” Devon Energy, an oil and gas company based in Oklahoma City, received naming rights in 2004 to the Devon Energy Hall in exchange for a $10 million donation to the school’s College of Engineering. Boalt says that students are drawn to majoring in petroleum engineering and business through “big events with tons of people and lots of nice food.” These majors, he says, “receive a lot of attention on campus” and are promoted as having “immediate marketability.”

“It’s becoming harder and harder for some people to even articulate why it is that corporations shouldn’t be on campus influencing curriculum,” says Washburn, who argues that as corporate involvement becomes routine on campus, a focus on critical thinking skills devolves to a narrow sense of job readiness. “We’re seeing people increasingly coming out of college without advanced intellectual, creative, and critical-thinking skills. … Those are the broad skills you lose when you transform the university.”

What remains to be seen, at UC Berkeley and elsewhere, is whether that the same fuzziness will affect the solutions we create to address the global environmental crisis.

Sonya Huber’s first book – Opa Nobody (University of Nebraska Press, March 2008) – combines activist memoir with the search for an anti-Nazi grandfather. More information on her writing is available at


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