Revealed: Shell in deal with top university to influence its curriculum
Shell has a contractual agreement with a major Dutch university, which allows it to influence the curriculum and “the profile of its students”, according to documents seen by Unearthed.
The oil giant also paid Erasmus university hundreds of thousands of euros for conducting research into the business climate for multinationals in the Netherlands, invoices paid in 2008 and 2009 show.
The contract was signed in 2012 between Shell and the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), an international business school which is based at Erasmus university in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered.
It states that RSM will provide tailored business advice to Shell, in return for cash.
The director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) called the findings “disturbing” and warned academics to be “wary”.
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The findings are published after Unearthed revealed Shell was strategically targeting young people, academics and business leaders, as part of a PR push designed to position itself as a low carbon leader – despite spending over $7 billion on efforts to drill in the Arctic.
Universities across the world have pledged to move their own money out of oil, gas and coal, but many continue to take funding from fossil fuel giants. In 2015, top UK universities admitted to having taken millions, prompting concerns about conflicts of interest.
The university, which ranked 69th in the 2017 world university rankings, said it “has nothing to hide”. It said that Shell has played “no formal part” in the development of its curriculum and would create a publicly available register of its corporate ties, in response to the findings.
But Stuart Parkinson, the executive director of SGR, a membership organisation for scientists, engineers, technologists and architects, told Unearthed:
“It’s disturbing to hear of the close relationship between a major oil corporation and yet another leading university. Shell admits that it’s not planning to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio within the next 20 years. This, in my view, is deeply irresponsible. Major changes in global climate are already under way, and without a global transition over that period, catastrophic effects will be extremely hard to prevent. Academics should be much more wary about having close ties to a corporation which is not taking the threat of climate change seriously enough.”
The contract outlines the formation of “sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship between Shell and RSM, based on agreed and long-term objectives,” under the guidance of a steering group that matches relevant academics with business areas targeted by Shell.
It states that Shell will be free to “potentially influence the design of the RSM curriculum and the profile of students who attend”.
The business school will also aid Shell’s recruitment efforts, the contract states. The career service at the business school will advertise job opportunities, hosting speakers from Shell and “organising and facilitating company events whenever appropriate.”
The full contract also states: “RSM has one of the largest research capabilities in Europe. RSM can provide research expertise to Shell (at cost), focusing on some of Shell’s key interests”
“A high volume of talented young people”
A photograph taken last week of an abridged version of the contract, displayed in public, suggests it is still in force. Correspondence between Shell and RSM, seen by Unearthed, suggests the university is pushing for closer collaboration.
In an email, dated June 2016, to a senior executives at Shell, a staff member at RSM says:
“We would like to present to you how a broad spectrum of relevant expertise in combination with a high volume of talented young people is being ‘produced’ by RSM and why we should therefore strive to work towards a much more substantial strategic partnership between RSM and Shell.
The sustainable management issues around the challenges and opportunities Shell is facing match to a large extent the focus of RSM and its 7500 students and 350 researchers.”
This response “could have been sent to basically any company”, said Marianne Schouten, a spokesperson for the university.
She told Unearthed: “We want and need to work with the corporate world in the broadest sense. We are proud of our students and want them to be a force for positive change in the world – and enable this change where needed.”
The documents were obtained through Dutch freedom of information laws and are part of a body of research conducted by Vatan Hüzeir, a sociology lecturer at Erasmus university and the director of sustainability think-tank Changerism. The study into the university’s relationships with the fossil fuel industry was initially funded by the university, but it said the researchers had “diverted from their original brief”.
New PR strategy
Last year, Unearthed revealed Shell’s new marketing strategy to position itself as a corporate leader en route to a “net-zero emissions” future.
In a leaked PR brief, Shell outlined young people, business leaders and academics as key targets for its new marketing strategy.
The Netherlands was identified as a primary market, alongside the UK, the US and Canada.
It cites “energy engaged millenials” as a key target group for growing “brand loyalty”, because “as the business influencers, opinion leaders, customers, employees and citizens of the future their views will become increasingly important for Shell as time goes on”.
The new strategy will also “help ‘open doors’ in building relationships with key stakeholders in support of business objectives”, it says.
But in the same document, Shell warns: “we have no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years”.
In a statement published online by RSM and Erasmus University, dean Steef van der Velde said that corporations have no say in their education or research programmes:
“The process of developing and formulating a curriculum is handled with great care within the university with scholars and students participating. Neither Shell nor any other company plays a formal part in this process.
Of course, external organisations and stakeholders are involved during the accreditation process and programme evaluations. After all, the extent to which an academic programme connects to the requirements of the employment market is an important factor in students’ decisions to enrol in that programme.”
“Not a single part of RSM’s strategy and of its execution is connected to fossil fuel companies in any way, and in no way the Advisory Board determines RSM’s strategy. Curricula can be set and changed only by means of a very rigorous process that involves RSM’s Programme Committees and the various accreditation organisations.”
Shell responded to Unearthed’s request for comment by pointing to RSM’s statement on the matter.
In regard to funding research by the university, a Shell spokesperson added: “Dutch employers’ organization VNO-NCW commissioned the research project in 2009 on behalf of (a group of) its members. Shell contributed financially, as was also confirmed by VNO-NCW. Multinational companies create a lot of jobs and are of great importance to the Dutch economy.”