Weapons Manufacturer’s Partnership with University and UMSU Raises Tough Ethical Questions

26 August 2020

University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU)-affiliated clubs were selected for funding from the defence company Boeing, potentially breaching the Union’s own constitution, sponsorship policy, and official public stance. 

In 2019, Boeing — ranked the second-highest grossing global weapons manufacturer for the last three years — committed to partnership funding for both the University’s School of Engineering and to several UMSU clubs.

These clubs include Women In Technology (WIT), Melbourne University Electrical Engineering Club (MUEEC) and Melbourne University Chemical Engineering Student’s Society (MUCESS). 

The clubs told Farrago they have not had further contact with Boeing since, nor have they received any funding from the company to date. UMSU’s Clubs & Societies (C&S) Department has also confirmed that there have so far been no sponsorship declarations from the clubs in question.

Despite the clubs’ and UMSU’s denials, both Boeing and the University’s Graduate School of Engineering said their agreement maintained a commitment to fund UMSU student clubs. University spokesperson Rachel Sheldon also confirmed on April 20 that Boeing is still sponsoring the student clubs for 2020. 

“There are no changes to the funding allocation process,” she said. 

However, 2020 UMSU President Hannah Buchan said she was unaware of any sponsorship arrangements between affiliated clubs and Boeing for this year.

“Partnerships with weapons companies are not ethical, and through their partnerships the University is actively promoting the production of lethal weapons,” Buchan said.

2019 UMSU President and 2020 National Union of Students President Molly Willmott told Farrago that the funding collaboration violated UMSU’s Ethical Sponsorship Policy. 

“I don’t believe that this is in line with the policy and platform of the Union,” she said.  

The policy explicitly states that “UMSU will not enter into sponsorship or advertising agreements with enterprises that, in the course of their regular business practice[,] create, manufacture, encourage, or perpetuate militarism or engage in the manufacture, distribution or sale of armaments.”

2019 C&S Office-Bearers Jordan Tochner and Chris Melenhorst said their department’s own unique policy requires clubs to be held to the same standard as UMSU policies. However, whether a club’s actions conflict with those policies is up to the determination of the Clubs Committee.

The Clubs Committee represents the C&S Department’s chief governing body. Itis composed of seven elected representatives from UMSU-affiliated clubs and societies, as well as the C&S Office Bearers as non-voting members.

2019 Clubs Committee member Ciara Griffiths said the 2019 Committee was not made aware of any potential sponsorship arrangements between UMSU-affiliated clubs and Boeing. 

While clubs are “largely self-administered and dictated by the needs of their members”, Griffiths said, “I believe that it is part of our role to communicate to clubs and remind them on [sic] UMSU’s stance and their ethical obligations that comes [sic] with UMSU affiliation.”

Griffiths confirmed that “as an arms manufacturer, Boeing is in conflict with the UMSU Ethical Sponsorship Policy.”

Since 2016, controversy has surrounded the University’s industry connections with arms manufacturers. This is the first time, however, that the student union — which explicitly commits to opposing militarism in its constitution — has been implicated in ties to the weapons industry. 

Previously, students, staff, and alumni have campaigned to “lockout” the highest-ranking global weapons company, Lockheed Martin, and in 2018 similar groups likewise spoke out against the University’s proposed collaboration with BAE Systems Australia on the Fishermans Bend Engineering Precinct. 

In comparison, the agreement between Boeing, the University, and UMSU clubs has been kept much quieter. A Boeing spokesperson told Farrago they had “selected Melbourne University as a partner institution for 2019,” and had donated approximately $65,000 to the University.

The Engineering School’s Academic Liaison with Boeing, Graham Schaffer, said the relationship had so far provided scholarships for female engineering students and funding for a cross-university STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) outreach program for Indigenous high school students. 

Schaffer emphasised the benefits of no-strings-attached monetary support from such a large graduate employer. “These are just scholarships to good students,” he said.

However, Willmott described such claims to altruism as “disingenuous.” She saw the funding as an attempt to superficially offset the weapons company’s impact on marginalised communities by offering them scholarship opportunities. 

University of Melbourne Associate Professor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tilman Ruff likewise critiqued Boeing’s potential motives, and said that as a staff member he was “ashamed” and “deeply disappointed” by the University’s continued involvement with the defence industry. 

He said companies like Boeing, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin only provide scholarships and funding “for public relations purposes” to help “normalise war, weapons and high levels of military spending from which they profit.” 

“No organisation associated with the university [sic], including student clubs, should accept such funds,” Ruff said. 

School of Engineering postgraduate student Shaveen Sasanka acknowledged that much of the “exceptional” funding for engineering research and scholarships come from the defence industry. 

“However, defence projects come with ethical issues. As bioengineers our main purpose is to built [sic] stuff to heal[,] not destroy,” Sasanka said. 

“I do not know if I’d ever use defence industry connections in the future. However, at this age and current mindset[,] I hope I never will.” 

Sheldon told Farrago that the clubs granted funding by Boeing were self-nominated through an online proposal form and that the University was “not involved” in the process.

A University spokesperson highlighted that “all collaborations with external partners are extensively reviewed and subjected to a rigorous and continuous assessment of how they are advancing knowledge and bringing benefits for researchers, students and the wider community.”

Conflict of interest declaration: Lucy Turton was involved in the Lockout Lockheed campaign as one of the 2018 UMSU Environment Officers.

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