With his think tank Changerism, sociologist Vatan Hüzeir studied the links between Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) and the fossil industry. “It’s often said that institutions contribute to climate change,” he says. “We wanted to know if the same applies to Erasmus University.” This resulted in the report A Pipeline of Ideas – How the Rotterdam School of Management facilitates climate change by collaborating with the fossil fuel industry.

“Did you follow the general shareholders meeting at Shell last week?” asks Hüzeir, referring to the resolution to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Climate Accord. The resolution was rejected by a huge majority. “There’s no significant movement towards renewable energy. In Shell’s most progressive energy scenario, the company says that it’s important to work towards net zero emissions. But in the small print you read that they aren’t planning any investments in the next twenty years that are in line with that scenario.”

By collaborating with companies that do nothing about climate change, or that are even largely responsible for it, you are supporting the business models of those companies, Hüzeir feels. “We wrote this report to promote positive change. Because we love the university, these kinds of things must – unfortunately – be challenged.”

‘I don’t want the institute I love to contribute to dangerous climate change’

Vatan Hüzeir

Why did you want to conduct this study?

“The study results from two things. Firstly, concern about climate change: the climate is changing dangerously fast; we all need to do something about it. And secondly, love for Erasmus University: I studied here, acquired my research skills here and I work here. Those two things mean that I don’t want the institute I love to contribute to a dangerous form of climate change. So I wanted to investigate whether the university plays a role in it.”

RSM dean Steef van de Velde is not at all happy with that study. He feels that it’s biased and accuses you of taking an ideological approach.

“Unfortunately, calling for progressive changes is often received in this way. The accusation is not elaborated further, which annoys me. The report describes the links between the faculty and the fossil industry, how these contribute to the business models of those companies and why those relationships exist. Van de Velde also says: ‘We knew that the approach would be such that the conclusions would be bad for us.’ Whether research results are good or bad is obviously not the point. All our claims in the report are based on scientific sources, internal documents or interviews with RSM staff. I don’t understand what makes that ideologically biased.”

You’re obviously a bit of an activist. In 2014 you launched the campaign EUR Fossil Free with an open letter in EM, which led to this research report.

“Yes, that’s right. I have a climate activist background, something I also mention in the report. But it’s too easy to reject the report purely on those grounds. We say that climate change is dangerous. I don’t think RSM would disagree with me in that respect. We say we need to do something about climate change. RSM feels the same, by supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, with Sustainable RSM.”

“In the EUR Fossil Free campaign, we called on the university to conduct a critical evaluation of the links with the fossil industry. The Executive Board agreed that such an evaluation was a good idea and supported us with a small subsidy, which allowed us to conduct this study.”

‘By ending the collaboration, you give off a signal: Shell is not doing enough to counter climate change and we don’t agree with that’

Vatan Hüzeir

The dean says that you already felt that the partnership between RSM and the fossil industry has harmful consequences. “That wasn’t a conclusion, but the starting point,” he told EM last week.

“That’s nonsense. We spent a whole year studying what kinds of links exist and what they consist of. All the relationships we studied contribute to the business models of the fossil industry. That’s not such a ground-breaking result. A condition for collaboration between companies is that each company gets something out of it. That’s what a company does: it makes a profit. And if that can be achieved by using a university, they do that.”

According to the dean, you’ve consciously ignored the examples of sustainable initiatives, research into renewable energy, or publications that are critical of the fossil industry.

“Some things simply fell outside the scope of our study. Don’t get me wrong – we don’t deny that there are examples of sustainable initiatives. We already suggested that the university should conduct a similar study into relationships with companies in renewable energy. However, there was very little interest. This study was about the links with the fossil industry and their impact.”

“The concrete effect of the study of the head offices, for example, is that 500 million euros in taxpayers’ money would benefit multinationals. On the legitimisation of that tax measure is the name of a publicly financed institution, while the report was paid by Shell. The gas sector study we mention in the report is supposed to contribute to a ‘licence to operate’ for gas companies, create better social support for a fossil fuel. In my view, the only correct conclusion is that RSM is thus contributing to the perpetuation of the fossil industry.”

One of your recommendations is to completely end any collaboration with the fossil industry. What would cutting the ties with companies like Shell resolve?

“As an institute, you also play a social-cultural or social role. The university is an intellectual beacon in society and educates the leaders of society – the people who will ultimately make the decisions. By ending the collaboration with the fossil industry, you give off a signal. Not only to those companies, but you say to all the students: Shell is not doing enough to counter climate change and we don’t agree with that.”

Vatan Huzeir 2
Vatan Hüzeir Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Dean Steef van de Velde says: “But through collaboration, we can ensure that those companies minimise their footprint and help speed up the energy transition.”

“We couldn’t find a single example to support that claim. In our interviews with RSM staff, no one knew how interactions with fossil energy companies resulted in actions that contributed to a more climate-friendly business model. One of them said: ‘We only tend to pay lip service to sustainability.’ So what concrete effects have these interactions had? I understand the university, though: ‘We have to keep talking, keep interacting, in the hope that this will lead to the desired change.’ But if that change doesn’t materialise, you need to incorporate an exit strategy.”

‘The time when you could hope for improvement, when RSM could hope that its interactions with the fossil industry might lead to change, has gone’

Vatan Hüzeir

Don’t you think that collaboration in the longer term is more effective?

“By the time that the next first-year students graduate, so much CO2 will have been emitted that the risk of dangerous climate change will have grown massively. So the time when you could hope for improvement, when RSM could hope that its interactions with the fossil industry might lead to change, has gone. After half a century of collaborating with fossil energy companies, it’s time to try something different: mobilise the social role to achieve that change.”

So what if students want to work for oil and gas companies?

“Maybe they’ll find Shell a good employer. But at the same time, those students expect an ethical filter from their education institution. RSM reduces collaboration with companies to a supply and demand issue: students want it, so we do it.”

Why is that problematic?

“It’s a very determinist view of interactions in society: that as an institute, you have no say on the moral implications of an interaction. But there are certainly moral effects. Take Starbucks on campus. That company pays very little tax. Apparently that’s no problem for collaboration, which means the university actually approves of the fact that Starbucks pays so little tax. And furthermore: what if students all want to go and work for a cluster bomb manufacturer? Will we enter into a partnership with them too?”

‘The most important question a university ought to ask is forgotten’

Vatan Hüzeir

No, because RSM doesn’t work with the arms or porno industry, says Van de Velde. So that ethical filter does exist.

“So codify it. And be transparent about it. One of our main recommendations is to draw up criteria to use as a basis to decide whether you can team up with a company. At the moment there are none and this produces a great deal of uncertainty. Consequently, the most important question a university ought to ask is forgotten: the why question. This must also apply to your own policy. Why do we do things the way we do?”

Companies are the research fields and potential employers of a public administration faculty. So isn’t it logical that they work closely with all kinds of companies?

“Working with companies is not wrong in itself. You just need to realise that a company also derives benefits and critically assess how your collaboration can impact on society. In addition, working together is not the same as signing a contract whereby you give an external party formal influence on the curriculum.”

Where do you feel the boundary for collaboration lies?

“I don’t have an immediate answer to that. You might choose not to collaborate at all, or as intensively as we see at RSM. I feel that those are the two extremes. The boundary lies somewhere in between. We desperately need a fundamental debate about it. Not just at RSM, but in the Netherlands.”