“It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber,” the saying goes. Now more than ever, public schools across the nation are feeling the brunt of the current administration’s allocation of funds, not into educating future generations, but instead into spreading “American-style” democracy around the world. As a result, some institutions have turned to private donorship to make up for the lack of funding provided by our own government.
Even here at Cal Poly, with the recent anonymous donation of $60 million to the architecture program, these types of gifts are necessary to continue to provide the excellent education that we rely on. But what if a corporation decided to give Cal Poly enough money to start a brand new degree or even a whole new college – the only caveat being that they get a say in how it operates?
For UC Berkeley, this concept has become a reality earlier this year when BP (previously known as British Petroleum) gave $500 million to start a new Energy Research Institute at Cal and the University of Illinois. But this gift is not simply a matter of pure benevolence; BP expects a huge return from their investment in the form of research-based data. The Institute’s main objectives are to explore and develop the area of Bio Fuels research, which at first might appear to be a step in the right direction, at least for BP’s part. But after looking deeper into this issue, the plan appears more like a way for BP to gain access to information at a very low cost. Half a billion dollars is a lot of money for UC Berkeley and chump change for a company like BP. The new Institute will feature an eight-person board of directors, comprised of four members from BP and the rest from Berkeley, that will dictate the direction the program heads in.
At this point, you might be feeling a little torn. On the one hand, this type of funding is hugely beneficial for UC Berkeley, which relies heavily on nearly non-existent public funding. But at the same time, what sort of impact does a partnership between an oil company and a university have on the future of public institutions? Especially a company like BP, whose history is littered with oil spills and negligent behavior often resulting in exorbitant fines. So has BP finally realized a new direction? My gut says no.
Corporations such as BP are focused on their own bottom line – maximizing profit. Giving massive sums to public institutions is simply another way of serving their own self-interest, even at the expense of academic integrity. With BP able to dictate what and how research is to be conducted at the new Institute, they are also able to limit what information is available and to whom. Overlooking this built-in secrecy, Gov. Schwarzenegger has agreed to publicly fund the construction and hiring of all new entities involved with the Institute.
Let’s summarize: BP is essentially outsourcing a majority of their research and development department (whose main priority is to find new ways of generating a profit for BP) to be conducted at a public university (whose objective is to create a balanced, well-rounded educational experience) at no profit. This is a blatant conflict of interest on behalf of all public entities involved.
Cal Poly also receives funding from private donors: Raytheon, one of the largest military defense contractors in America, gives generously almost every year. These donations are hugely beneficial, offering students access to equipment and facilities that Cal Poly might not be able to afford otherwise. But I have to wonder, to what extent do their checks become our guiding principles? At a time when public funding is not enough, we still have to demand that our academic freedom remains uncompromised by the heavy hand of corporate influence.
Erica Janoff is an industrial engineering senior, the president of the Cal Poly Democrats and a monthly Mustang Daily liberal columnist.