Bad benefactions: “Do they know what they’re selling?”

Amy Provan 23 January 2014

The University of Cambridge has come under fire for its acceptance of two benefactions from controversial oil giants, Shell and Gazprom.

Shell is giving £3.8 million to support the establishment of a laboratory for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. £260,000 from Gazprom will support Russian language training in the University.

Yet Greenpeace UK has criticised ­the University for accepting donations from two such contentious sources.

Gazprom, a Russian oil giant, is the first company to drill arctic oil and was the subject of a high profile Arctic 30 protest. An Amnesty International report found Shell to have made “deeply suspect and often untrue” claims about the causes and volumes of oil spills in the Niger Delta. Rather ironically, the benefactions were announced alongside a continuation of the Arcadia Fund’s support for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, which funds the Executive Director.

Speaking exclusively to The Cambridge Student, Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK’s Senior Climate Advisor said: “Shell and Gazprom need to buy a lot of social capital – they’re drilling for oil in the Arctic without any credible response plan for the inevitable spills.

“If they have a blow-out like the one BP had in the Gulf of Mexico, it could be spewing crude oil into the Arctic ocean for a year before they cap it. When that happens, they’re hoping these donations will act as good PR for them, and that’s what they’re buying here – respectable allies which they expect to need. The question is, do Cambridge know what they’re selling?” One student of Russian at Cambridge finds it a “disgrace that the University should accept funding from a company with such a controversial reputation. I would hate to think that my Russian teaching is being funded by a company that carries out the drilling of oil in the arctic and encouraged the imprisonment of environmental protestors.”

William Kerr, another Russian linguist, bemoaned the lack of funding for his department. “It isn’t ideal, but any contribution to the study of Russian regardless of where it comes from, is something to be welcomed. Funding from a company such as Gazprom is certainly better than no funding at all.”

Meanwhile Cambridge University Amnesty International has said that “the University has an irrefutable responsibility to thoroughly check the sources of all donations and ensure that the benefactions received do not induce or encourage the violation of human rights conventions and comply with the highest ethical standards.”

In a joint statement, CUSU and its Ethical Affairs team told TCS “These benefactions emphasise our university’s lack of an explicit and formalised policy for vetting the donations it receives. We hope that our ongoing dialogue with the University will result in the development of a policy to assess firstly the environmental and social track records of benefactors, and secondly the impact of their donations on teaching and research.”

According to its website, the Department for Chemical Engineering’s is part of a teaching consortium, with companies like Shell. Defending these relationships, the Cambridge Careers Service said, “Students – especially PhD researchers – have a chance to learn/hear more about the work of the company, often during informal chats over the ‘water cooler’ with a current or former member of that company’s staff.”

There is however “never any link between the funds they provide and a requirement for a certain number of Cambridge recruits… we believe in a student’s free choice of employer and would do nothing that might infringe this.”

The University has defended their acceptance of the two benefactions “neither of which represent any kind of political endorsement and neither of which has any strings attached.

“The University has explicit processes for the handling and vetting all benefactions, including published ethical guidelines on the acceptance of donations. In particular, every benefaction over £1 million, or which is likely to give rise to significant public interest is considered in detail by the University’s Advisory Committee on Benefactions and Legal and External Affairs.”

David Street, the Cambridge Greenpeace co-ordinator, has told TCS that he “can emphatically say that accepting these benefactions shows a disregard for the ethics, environmental records and the attitudes towards human rights of these companies. Cambridge University is wealthy enough to be choosy about who they accept benefactions from and it’s disappointing that they are going to accept these ‘gifts’.”