The issue. Corporations such as Shell and Deloitte are increasingly contributing financially to the research being conducted at EUR. This has prompted us to ask financial ethicist Aloy Soppe: just how independent is Erasmus University these days?
Let’s get the most important question out of the way first. Is the university still an independent institution?
“No, not completely independent. It should be, though. It should be an institution where students are taught to think independently, and where people take a critical look at how the economic, legal and ideological communities interact. But that takes a certain amount of distance. If you get too close to commercial stakeholders and their funding, your way of thinking will be transformed. You’ll become a tool of the business community. You will no longer be a university, but rather a university of applied sciences hired by multinationals. Which is kind of what happened.”
Can you give an example of that?
“Fiscal economics students are generally trained to help the business community pay as little tax as possible. This clearly serves the business community’s financial interests, even though academics should be asking why. Taxation is a way to redistribute wealth, and minimising the tax paid by companies goes at the expense of public services. Why would you consider the government an enemy? It’s the government who builds the road that leads to your company’s front door. It’s the government who ensures that we have a legal system. It’s the government who pays for unemployment. It is short sighted and immoral to help companies reduce the amount of tax they pay.”
You make it sound like students are not being trained to become free thinkers, but rather to be slaves to capital.
“Those are your words.”
You don’t think so?
“Universities have become enterprises, completely in line with the increasingly prevalent financial capitalism we see in the rest of society. This comes with certain rules. For instance, students must be prepared for the job market as quickly as possible, and academic staff must be business-like and efficient. Furthermore, funding has become highly centralised. We are all fighting for a small share of the same money. As a result, many academics are spending more time writing research proposals and engaging in politics than actually conducting research.”
“Universities have become enterprises, completely in line with the increasingly prevalent financial capitalism we see in the rest of society.”
Those applications for funding often involve private funding, i.e., projects which are funded by companies. Universities are expected to pour some of their own money into such research projects. According to critics, this leaves increasingly little money for research projects not proposed by companies. Is that a bad thing?
“There’s nothing wrong with companies asking universities questions. Universities must be involved in society. However, we should ask ourselves how exactly our company-imposed research agenda is coming about. I had a quick look at professors holding endowed chairs (i.e., professors who are not paid by the universities who employ them – ed.). In 1985, only 4 percent of all the professors working at Dutch universities held endowed chairs. Now we’re up to 21 percent. These professors bring in a few hundreds of thousands of euros and work part time, completing research projects with the help of some PhD students.”
Are you saying these people are appointed professors because they bring in a lot of money?
“Yes. Of course, they must hold doctorates and have published a few articles, but it’s obvious that universities sometimes value the funding over the professor’ academic quality.”
Can you list any examples of such professors?
“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m not concerned with these people, but rather with the fundamental question of whether someone is primarily an investigator or rather a partner, managing director or supervisor of a company. Because often they are both. Collaboration with the business community is bringing us knowledge, but our focus is slipping outwards. All too often, science is no longer the dream, the ultimate goal. I’ve seen them – increasingly young and talented parttime professors who are using the chairs they hold as a stepping stone to a ‘real’ career in business.”
Companies are not just affecting our research agenda. They are also trying to recruit the young talent which can be found at universities. To this end, companies such as Unilever, Deloitte and NautaDutilh are contacting study societies and student clubs at an early stage and paying for boozy get-togethers and events. Is this a harmful development?
“As far as I’m concerned, it isn’t. It’s a cheap way for these companies to recruit talented youngsters who then go and work their arses off for these companies for a few years. Given the opportunity, all of my students will go to London or New York. I always tell them they must experience these things for themselves… only to find out that it won’t make you happy.”
Contrary to the business community, the Dutch Socialist Party was not welcome on our campus last spring. It was not allowed to hand out flyers for a debate on independence in science. According to EUR’s spokesperson in a letter to the Party, the University withheld its permission because Erasmus University…
“…. does not take a political stand? Get out of here!”
SP said: how strange that we are being told to pack our bags, while major corporations are seemingly welcomed with open arms here.
“While I don’t see SP as a party which has any long-term solutions to societal issues whatsoever, I must admit it is completely right about this. Politicians are part of society. Therefore, we must allow them entry to our university, just like we do the business community. Students are grown-ups who can make up their own minds about which flyers to accept. Incidentally, I wonder if the same thing would have happened if the party in question had been VVD, the Dutch Liberal Party.”
What do you mean?
“I don’t think it was entirely an accident that it was SP who has banned from our university. Erasmus University is the epitome of pragmatism. We’re proud of this and it attracts students, but it doesn’t promote modernisation.”
You teach financial ethics and compliance to financial law students. Is that a subject they even want to learn?
“One might say that it takes them a while to understand why the subject is important. After all, you attend a university to become successful, which means making money in business.”
Is that something students should be ashamed of?
“No, I think it’s healthy to feel the need to have a career. However, it is the education institution’s duty to give students an academic education. Therefore, I feel that philosophy and ethics must be an integral part of the degree and that students must be taught why it is. We are the only Master’s degree in finance in the Netherlands offering ethics as a compulsory subject. Other degrees offer the odd lecture at most, which is no more than a cosmetic measure.”
What kind of advice would you like to give Erasmus University’s brand new Chair of the Executive Board?
“Ensure that all stakeholders are represented at the university in a democratic manner. It’s fine that we have the business community on our campus, since it is our largest customer, but right now, this party is far too prominent. Give your other stakeholders an active say in the matter, as well. Ask representatives of student unions and members of academic staff to join the Executive Board. Such democratization may result in a loss of efficiency, but will prove more sustainable in the long term.”
Aloy Soppe, born in 1953, is an associate professor of Financial Ethics at the Erasmus School of Law. After completing his general economics degree at Groningen University, he was a foreign exchange options consultant and worked at Amrobank’s stock-broking research department. After joining the world of economic science in 1987, he witnessed the rise of “so-called value-free” mathematical models. He specialises in ethics, compliance and sustainability. His latest book, New Financial Ethics: A Normative Approach, will be published by Routledge in early 2017.