What responsibilities do universities have? At first, answering this seems simple: a university’s responsibility is to educate. But what exactly is the point of education? Through answering that, the reason for a university’s existence and the ultimate responsibility it bears to society should become obvious. Too many regard this question as trivial; some assume the airs of someone who think the meaning of life can be found in the pages of the Financial Times and answer that we have education so that we may have jobs. A slightly more advanced philistine tells us that universities educate men and women to keep the economy running and growing, adding ever slimmer fractions to the holy trinity of G, D and P. Rather, I believe universities educate for the good of mankind. This thing, the “good of mankind”, is an inexhaustible concept and while it certainly does include economic gain, it also implies a strong moral focus. But while our renowned institution appears proficient at achieving the former, it seems disturbingly unconcerned by the latter.
I say this because on the 25th of January, Glasgow University held a “Careers Workshop with Nestlé”: Nestlé, the company that profited from forced labour on its cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and last month attempted (but was thankfully unsuccessful) to have the lawsuit that would hold them liable for such practices thrown out of the US Supreme Court. After the September 2005 torture and murder of Colombian Nestlé-Cicolac employee and trade-unionist Luciano Romero by paramilitaries, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights found that the company had not taken the “necessary precautionary measures, [and] local Nestle-Cicolac managers [had] spread libellous reports that Luciano Romero and his colleagues were reputed to be members of the guerrilla”, rather than seek to aid him after death threats were made. Listing all of Nestlé’s injustices would be tedious, and as I hope you will agree, sickening; anyone curious about the rest has only to search the internet. The two examples above should be sufficient to show the company to be wholly disreputable, and by allowing Nestlé to hold a careers workshop on campus, this university shares that dishonour.
Rather tellingly, this isn’t the first occasion Glasgow University has welcomed the company onto campus, as an event advertised on the university website for November 2015 shows. Institutions of higher learning do need money, of course, but this sorry lack of discrimination demands condemnation. While allowing Nestlé to run these events isn’t an evil in itself, it’s the university management’s feeble deference to wealth and power that should provoke student and faculty ire. After all, if a university is there to benefit mankind, as I assert, then giving a company known to view men, women and children as nothing more than means to an end the freedom to host events on campus, then it has certainly shirked its duty.
Enlightenment is necessary for virtue, and is always in short supply. But if there is one place in society where it must be expected to thrive, it’s the university. It follows that Nestlé’s ability to run these career workshops suggests a startling disregard for the university’s status as enlightened, as a place set apart from the world of getting and spending, that can be trusted to hold knowledge and truth higher than any other institution and to act accordingly. Because universities educate not for profit, but for education’s sake, they find themselves in the burdensome position as one of civil society’s safeguards; without the gales of the market constantly harrying on each side, they may decide to follow a more ethical course. Unfortunately for Glasgow University, it appears that course has been ignored for one that promises El-Dorado.