Student activists push against UC’s ‘unsustainable partnerships’

Cal Bears against ICE
Richard Chen/File

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This year, student organizers have begun to call out university relationships that run counter to campus values — and they are persisting through the pandemic.

The campaign against PepsiCo

The ASUC Department of Unsustainable Partnerships is urging UC Berkeley to withdraw from a contract that gives exclusive pouring rights to PepsiCo — the 10-year contract is up for renewal this fall.

Student activists allege that the partnership fails to meet the campus’s commitments to sustainability and student wellness.

“Eighty percent of beverages on campus must be PepsiCo,” said rising junior Lamiya Gulamhusein. “They have a monopoly on (consumer) choice and that compounds environmental effects.”

For the past two semesters, Gulamhusein has been working alongside rising sophomore Angie Wu to organize email campaigns and a town hall, and they are currently circulating a petition to stop the contract’s renewal. As of press time, they have gathered more than 1,300 signatures from campus students, faculty and community members, according to Wu.

This summer, the team plans to expand outreach to student organizations and campus research centers. Wu hopes this strategy will strengthen the campaign’s influence over campus decision-makers.

“I’d love to see more support for local businesses and our campus upholding what it says it’s going to do with sustainability,” Wu said.

“Cal Bears Against Palantir”

Prior to transferring to UC Berkeley, rising senior Liza Mamedov-Turchinsky had been pushing tech companies to end contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, she is recognized as a leading voice in a call to keep tech company Palantir off campus.

Mamedov-Turchinsky alleged that Palantir’s software provides ICE’s “technical backbone,” as its FALCON app is used by ICE to surveil people in real time.

Palantir has previously paid $20,000 annually to participate in campus’s Corporate Access Program, or CAP. Run by the electrical engineering and computer sciences department, the program provides companies with exclusive on-campus recruiting opportunities.

In a “major victory” for student activists, Cal Bears Against ICE organized demonstrations that resulted in Palantir canceling its on-campus informational session in September 2019, according to Mamedov-Turchinsky.

“This was an opportunity for Palantir to recruit more students in the pipeline of directly helping ICE,” Mamedov-Turchinsky said. “By stopping the pipeline of talent, we’re creating a very material impact.”

She added that she has initiated conversations with EECS deans on how CAP is run.

As CAP is an annual membership program, the EECS department does not know if Palantir will renew its membership for the coming year, said John Canny, the department’s computer science division chair. However, in an effort to call attention to ethical issues around potential employers, the EECS department plans to report on Palantir’s engagements for future rounds of recruitment.

“We share a goal with students protesting these events that all Berkeley students make well-informed decisions about their employers,” Canny said in an email.

Honoring Indigenous sovereignty

Student activists also continue to oppose the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, at the top of Maunakea in the Hawaiian Islands for the 15th year in a row, according to rising UC Berkeley sophomore Celeste Rodriguez. The UC Board of Regents has committed more than $68 million to TMT as of April 30.

UC Office of the President spokesperson Stett Holbrook said in an email that the university feels it is important to support the scientific mission of TMT given its potential to enable a “new frontier” of space research.

Protesters, however allege that the TMT violates the United Nations’ declaration of Indigenous rights by developing a sacred burial site against the requests of Native Hawaiians, according to Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is a head student organizer of Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Berkeley. While the group’s immediate goal is divestment from TMT, Rodriguez said it would also like to see the university reinvest the money in student aid during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide a cost-of-living adjustment for GSIs.

At a meeting in January, the UC regents promised to hold a separate meeting evaluating its involvement with TMT. Rodriguez is currently preparing a public comment for the regents’ regular July meeting to ensure that the special meeting is held and that Indigenous voices are heard.

“The Native Hawaiian people want to make it clear that they aren’t anti-science,” Rodriguez said. “We want to see a greater science community that supports Indigenous sovereignty, land and sacred grounds.”

The university appreciates the issues raised and is “deeply committed” to respecting the culture, heritage and environment of Maunakea, Holbrook said in an email.

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd