A remarkable event occurred Saturday, Nov. 15. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers presented the results of their research on a myriad of sustainability issues — a subject that couldn’t be more relevant for our age. But amid the interesting and important projects presented, a coterie of protesters (for the sake of transparency: us) pointed out deeper practical and philosophical issues associated with the event’s funder, the Dow Chemical Company.

Dow has and continues to be engaged in activities of questionable (a stronger word might be relevant) sustainability — indeed, of questionable (a much stronger word would be relevant) morality. As the last company willing to produce napalm to horrendous effect on humans in Vietnam, still willing to produce the well-known toxin Atrazine and recently having pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to approve a new product that will result in the spraying of 2,4-D (one of the chemicals used in Agent Orange — also produced by Dow — for terrorism in Vietnam), we called for the audience to reflect on the nature of the funding source. Through distributing informational flyers across campus a week before the event, handing out a fact sheet at the event, unfurling a couple of banners calling out Dow on its prior and current crimes against the environment and humanity and posing questions at the event, we confronted Dow’s “sustainability” representative.

It should be noted that our protest was not against the work of the Dow sustainability scholars. On the contrary, we applaud the fine work they are doing. Rather, our concern is with the past and present actions of one of the world’s worst actors on the sustainability front and the image that represents for the University. Serious sustainability researchers now have part of their résumé tainted with the label “Dow Sustainability Fellow,” which is certainly not useful in seeking some employment opportunities. Why is it that Dow funding carries with it the obligation to be called a Dow fellow? If Dow is, as it claims, simply concerned with solving some of the world’s pressing sustainability problems, why insist on burdening the recipients of its funding? In the past, fellows were called “Graham Sustainability Fellows” after the Graham Institute. What is wrong with that title? Or is Dow simply concerned with purchasing some of the University’s legitimacy?

Such questions call into view some even bigger issues. Why are folks who are interested in doing sustainability research forced to go to the dark side for money in the first place? Why, in turn, is the University forced to get into bed with notorious criminals? The answer, as known by everyone from the University President to the incoming first-year undergraduate, is that the University is, in practice, no longer a public institution. As part of the great “conservative” move — if you call destroying public education conservative — beginning with the Reagan/Thatcher era, state funding for higher education has, by now, effectively disappeared. Therefore, students, faculty and researchers are forced to seek private funds to support what used to be thought of as activities in service of the public good and thus worthy of support from the public at large (which is to say the government). Students (and student researchers) are forced to seek money in every available nook and cranny from loan sharks (banks) to criminals.

Yet, is there absolutely no limit on who should fund us? Perhaps the leaders of Los Zetas wish to donate some money? Perhaps the American Nazi party would like to help fund our Jewish Studies program? The KKK, our African American Studies program? Certainly there are limits to what we will endorse by accepting their money. Do criminal elements like Dow deserve our endorsement? And is it simply irrelevant that the fellows doing such fine work must be saddled with the Dow label? Maybe the University can give us an answer.

This viewpoint was written by members of Science for the People, a student organization at the University of Michigan.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article failed to note that Science for the People is a student organization at the University of Michigan.

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