Academics at War

In my junior year at ASU I was awarded a fellowship to work with a professor on a research project. His research project was particularly interesting because of the framework: he was researching counter-insurgent discourse in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Western Europe. His research was diverse, but boiled down to trying to figure out who was on “our side” in contested regions, and how to connect with them. It was one of a small group of projects that comprised The Minverva Initiative, a program funded by the Department of Defense to help better understand the conflicts in which the United States is involved.

A couple years removed from this, I’m wondering if I would still choose the same fellowship (we each chose from a list of potential projects on which we would work, I ended up landing on this one, researching the background of the rebellion in southern Thailand). The Minerva Project, being fully funded by the DoD through the Office for Naval Research, uses academics to assist the military in its work around the world. There’s a lot to be said about the pros and cons of such a relationship, and I find myself wavering a bit in whether or not academics should really be so involved in the military’s operations. One – well, four – points made by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists was this:

The US university system is already highly militarized, that is, many universities take in a large proportion of their research funding from military sources.  This is problematic for four reasons:

  1. The fields so supported are distorted by focus on issues of utility to warmaking.  Whole fields of study hypertrophy and others shrink or are never developed as researchers are drawn from one field into the other, Pentagon-desired ones.  Nuclear and other weapons research related areas grow, at the expense of environmental research, for example.  Moreover, theory, methodology, and research goals in such fields as physics, computer science, and engineering after decades of military funding now operate on assumptions that knowledge about force is paramount.
  2. These research foci begin to structure what gets taught to students and what research projects students themselves see as the best options for their own work. A brain drain from other research directions occurs.
  3. The dependence on single sources of funding with their own agenda tends to reduce intellectual autonomy in ways that go beyond the selection of subject matter for research.
  4. The University becomes an instrument rather than a critic of war-making, and spaces for critical discussion of militarism within the university shrink.

And if you find this program a little too cozy of a relationship, you’ll shiver at the thought of Human Terrain Mapping. A couple of years ago the Army unveiled a new program called Human Terrain Systems which dwarfs the involvement of academia that programs like Minerva created.

HTS Researcher in Afghanistan, via

The program, as described by the Army, places small Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) with Army and USMC combat teams on the ground in conflict zones. HTTs conduct research on the ground to help create “human terrain” maps that influence combat decisions, including “planning, preparation, execution and assessment of operations.” The teams are a mixture of military and civilian, including social scientists, researchers and analysts. Some have argued that HTS is “weaponizing” disciplines such as anthropology, and the debate has continued over the last couple of years. It’s hard to argue against the fact that universities are being funded more and more by the military, and that this does alter how universities operate – whether you think it’s good or bad.

A Campaign Deferred

In April of this year I met with a number of like-minded individuals at Arizona State University.  By like-minded, I mean people who are concerned about social justice and human rights.  We had a vision of linking our student organizations – interests like women’s rights and fair trade, LGBTQ equality and anti-genocide came together.  Our primary goal was to establish something ASU didn’t have, but that we thought it needed: a Committee for Socially Responsible Investing.’

A number of universities have these committees.  They’ve manifested themselves in different structures and with different goals.  One early and prominent campaign was the campaign to cripple the South African regime through divestment (which started in the US with the Sullivan Principles and in universities with Stanford).  Recently there has been a push to divest from companies like PetroChina that do business with Sudan, a frequent human rights abuser.  Currently a number of universities have begun the controversial but justified effort to sever ties with the aggressive and abusive Israeli government.  Yet ASU does not have a committee to oversee what money is spent on.  There is definitely no one looking over the Fulton Foundation’s investments.

So we established the ASU Coalition for Human Rights.  And we drafted a proposal.  And we began meeting with Vice President for University Student Initiatives Dr. James Rund.  We began making progress.  I was among four students in a meeting with Dr. Rund at the end of September.  We spent the better part of an hour debating the need for a committee and the trend of social responsibility that ASU is missing.  We began debating the structure of such a committee – who would serve on it? how would the Coalition be involved? would the committee’s decisions be binding? It was at this point that I turned to Dr. Rund and asked, bluntly: “So, are you saying that you support the creation of a committee, but want to debate the structure of it?”  To which he casually responded, “I’d say yes, yes I am.” We later adjourned the meeting and agreed to speak with Student Government’s Council of Presidents on the issue and come back to Dr. Rund.

Last week, a number of my like-minded peers met with Dr. Rund.  Just weeks after telling me that, yes, yes he supported the idea of creating a committee, we were told that the committee was a bad idea.  We were challenged not only on the structure of the committee, but on the structure of the Coalition itself (we had recently voted down an application from a political student organization on the grounds of the Coalition being apolitical and purely human rights-oriented) and even on the premise of the necessity of such a committee.  We were told that, if there is a question of ASU’s investments, feel free to bring it up with ASU’s leadership.

A lot of our success has been curbed, but we’re not stopping.  ASU has not yet made an official proclamation to have sweatshop-free merchandise (although ASU did cut its contract with Russell Athletic over labor disputes, which deserves some applause).  ASU has not taken a stance in making sure its electronics are audited to be conflict mineral-free.  The Fulton Foundation’s finances have not been made public, so I personally have no idea if my tuition dollars are indirectly supporting genocide in Darfur now or election-disruption in South Sudan in January.  Who knows where that money goes?

I still have hopes that my university will take a step forward.  I have hopes that our organization will be able to keep the pressure on until a permanent Committee for Socially Responsible Investing is established at Arizona State University.  Let’s keep this going.