EECS department holds discussion on UC Berkeley’s affiliation with Palantir

Maya Valluru/Staff

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On Thursday, about 50 community members attended a tense discussion about UC Berkeley’s affiliation with software giant Palantir and corporate recruitment and interacted with five panelists regarding possible solutions.

At the discussion — held by the UC Berkeley electrical engineering and computer sciences department and Cal Bears Against ICE — graduate student and panelist Zoe Cohen said admittance into the EECS department’s Corporate Access Program, or CAP, in which Palantir participates, was a “tacit endorsement” of the company by the department. Palantir has come under pressure from campus students for its contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Cohen added that the department’s refusal to remove Palantir from CAP was “hypocritical” in light of Chancellor Carol Christ’s statements of support for undocumented students.

“If Berkeley wants to take a public stance that they support undocumented members on campus, then their actions must be consistent with that stance,” Cohen said during the event. “Berkeley must put the safety and needs of their students and staff over the privileges granted to private corporations.”

John Canny, the EECS department’s computer science division chair and a panelist at the discussion, said the department has not endorsed or examined any of the companies included in CAP, which brings companies to campus for recruitment opportunities.

Canny added that companies are brought to campus because there is a mutual interest between students and the company, noting that if students were to boycott Palantir recruitment events, the company would be removed from the program.

In a letter from university students across the United States, 542 UC Berkeley students, as of press time, have pledged not to apply for or accept jobs from Palantir while the company honors its contracts with ICE.

According to Canny, the EECS department conducted an anonymous survey to assess student sentiment about the department having a role in filtering which companies have access to CAP. The survey results showed about a 50% split in student opinion.

“We don’t feel we’re morally superior to the students we’re supervising — our goal is to try to educate,” Canny said during the event. “I just don’t see the advantage of us trying to make that decision as opposed to providing information so students can make better decisions.”

Canny said the department is considering removing Palantir from its CAP program, according to Cal Bears Against ICE member and campus junior Olivia Nouriani, who is a former news reporter for The Daily Californian.

Canny proposed that more events at which students could discuss ethics in technology and corporate recruitment be scheduled. He also discussed the possibility of inviting Palantir executives onto the department’s advisory board in order to better influence the company’s decisions, a prospect that was met with objection from the audience.

Campus senior Sathvik Nair, one of the panelists, argued that embedding ethics education into the department’s curriculum is critical and could be supported by the formation of a committee in the department.

“What we have to realize is that we are tech companies’ recruitment pool, and we are valued by them, so our actions and our voices actually matter,” Nair said during the event. “They can be used to put pressure on these tech companies to change their actions.”

Emily Hom is a student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hom_emily.