In this guest post, members of No Tech for Tyrants (NT4T) – a student-led, UK-based organisation working to sever the links between higher education, violent technology, and hostile immigration environments – discuss one important arm of their work.
Migrant communities are endangered by universities’ relationships with businesses like Palantir Technologies, whose software is “mission critical” to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) mass raids, detentions, and deportations. The harm inflicted by ICE is an integral component of a white nationalist deportation machine, which routinely destroys lives and condemns migrants to deadly concentration camps. Migrant rights organisations describe Palantir as the “most prominent supporter of the deportation machine in Silicon Valley.” The anti-migrant violence Palantir enables would not be possible without the talent it recruits from top UK universities. In exchange for material benefits, universities invite Palantir representatives to deliver talks, present at career fairs, and sponsor student prizes. Several groups have cut ties with Palantir, citing the company’s facilitation of anti-migrant violence; yet, despite claiming to be committed to social responsibility, many universities remain open to Palantir.
As members of No Tech For Tyrants (NT4T), a student-led migrant justice organisation, we met with university administrators to request that they implement ethical guidelines in regards to their corporate partnerships. Administrators responded with two kinds of objections: ethical guidelines would (1) threaten free expression, and (2) be too political. We’ll explicate and reject both kinds of objection. Instituting ethical guidelines on corporate partnerships is necessary for dismantling the relationship between universities and technology businesses that facilitate egregious harm.
We understand “corporate partnerships” broadly, to cover mutually beneficial engagements like career fairs, sponsored research, etc. We’re not proposing that universities align themselves with any one particular ethical framework; solutions can be university-specific. “Ethical guidelines” are policies designed to limit partnerships with businesses working against universities’ stated values. There is no perfect litmus test, but for example, if ethical guidelines—however they’re specified—allow for partnerships with businesses that terrorize migrant communities, they are inadequate. Universities should locate corporate partnerships within the purview of issues to which their value-based commitments apply.
Responding to Objection (1): Free Expression
First, university administrators claim that concerns over free expression prevent them from implementing ethical guidelines. Banning businesses from campus prevents representatives from expressing their points of view. Administrators also claim that ethical guidelines would go against their university’s principled commitment to being an open forum for discourse.
In response, we admit that guidelines will limit some businesses’ ability to express their positions on campus. However, those limits are defensible. Within the context of universities, free expression is valued because it provides students, staff, and faculty with protections against the powerful and interested actors who may wish to silence them. Universities do not have positive obligations to promote or even protect businesses’ capacity to recruit students.
A related worry concerns the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas. This worry wrongly conceptualizes corporate engagements as opportunities for open discourse. Career fairs, for example, are explicitly recruitment-driven; they are not forums for meaningful discussion. And students who express opinions that threaten businesses’ interests at sponsored events are routinely asked to leave.
If universities are genuinely interested in promoting free expression, they should stop partnering with businesses involved in silencing migrants through persecution. Administrators contribute to the erosion of free expression when they invoke it to defend actors implicated in its dismantling.
Responding to Objection (2): Political Neutrality
University administrators’ second response is that limiting corporate partnerships may be too political. Many are sympathetic to migrant justice issues but believe that guidelines would threaten institutional neutrality. It would be a misuse of power to let personal politics limit students’ choices. Furthermore, guidelines would set a slippery precedent.
In response, we believe that the status quo is already non-neutral: a university’s choice to partner with a particular business has political implications. Corporate partnerships express implicit endorsements. For example, collaborating with Palantir effectively says, “Palantir’s record of facilitating violence against migrant communities does not disqualify them from partnership with us.” Universities are clearly aware of the political implications of their partnerships: after all, major UK universities have already divested from corporations (e.g., fossil fuel companies) that they’ve identified as in conflict with their stated values.
And claiming that universities are politically neutral ignores their role in promoting values. By their own lights, universities are not merely profit-maximising entities whose products are employable graduates. Most universities present themselves as socially responsible members of their communities and claim to be bastions of knowledge, diversity, and freedom.
Moreover, it’s not our goal to dictate student choices: students can apply anywhere they want. And we recognize that many students don’t have the privilege of turning down employment opportunities from implicated businesses. Guidelines are not about nudging students toward making what we consider to be “good” choices by removing the “bad” ones; they are about facilitating university accountability.
Finally, administrators protest, “Where do we draw the line?” We don’t have an easy answer, but we do know that concerns over corporate partnerships aren’t going away. We believe that ethical guidelines will help universities limit the ad hoc nature of those inevitable decisions. Guidelines promote transparency and accountability. In fact, the most significant precedent that implementing ethical guidelines will set is one of reflexivity towards the serious impacts of corporate partnerships.
Instituting ethical guidelines on corporate partnerships is not a panacea. We envision it as a component of a larger project: dismantling the ties between higher education institutions and the violence infrastructure threatening migrant lives. As members of NT4T and philosophers-in-training, we think this project calls upon us all to foster a culture of moral and political accountability within higher education. Ethical guidelines are an appropriate first step.
Mallika Balakrishnan, Negin Mortazavi, and Jacob Zionts are members of No Tech for Tyrants (NT4T). NT4T organises, researches, and campaigns to dismantle the violence infrastructure at the intersection of ethics, technology, migration governance, and surveillance. You can follow NT4T on Twitter here.
Mallika and Jacob are studying for the MLitt in Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy through the St Andrews and Stirling Graduate Programme in Philosophy. Negin is studying for an MA in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.