From SDS, to CMU: ban war profiteers from the TOC this year

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From Sept. 24-26, the Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC) will take place in the Cohon Center, and the long history of close collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and the defense industry will almost certainly continue.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is the wealthiest and most powerful customer of past TOC corporate attendees such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. DoD is also a major funder of off-campus Carnegie Mellon research institutions such as the Software Engineering Institute in Oakland (currently on year three of a five-year, $1.73 billion DoD contract), the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville (selected in 2016 for four DoD-funded projects totaling $10.6 million), and the soon-to-be-built Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute in Hazelwood (earned $80 million in DoD startup funding in 2017). In addition, the DoD awards about $135 million each year (p. 16) in grants to individual CMU researchers in departments like the Robotics Institute, the Institute for Software Research, Psychology, and Social and Decision Sciences. Most recently, in April, the DoD’s Army Research Laboratory established a partnership with our engineering college, CIT, to give its engineers access to the military’s “real-world, challenging problems and data sets, as well as access to ARL facilities, infrastructure, and equipment,” with the ultimate goal of providing “increased capabilities for national security and defense,” according to CIT’s Dean James H. Garrett, Jr.

This relationship goes back until at least 1987, when the university received $103 million from the DoD to fund research in “weapons targeting and tracking.” By 2004, the radio program, Democracy Now!, had run a segment about our school entitled “Carnegie Military University.” And this past May, PublicSource reported on the university’s current connections to the military-industrial complex. In short, Carnegie Mellon’s role in U.S. imperialism and corporate greed are a continuing stain on the university’s public image and a failure of leadership on the part of our administrators.

This failure is epitomized by the companies privileged to attend our most prestigious yearly career fair. The TOC, which is sponsored by CIT and run by the Society of Women Engineers, has hosted numerous companies that profit off of deadly conflict and nuclear proliferation – from Northrup Grumman and Leidos, to Boeing and Bechtel. Their products, such as laser-guided munitions, fighter jets, drones, and surveillance systems, are used in bombing campaigns in Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Millions of people have fled their homes or died as a result, all while the shareholders of TOC-attending companies rake in billions.

The situation with the TOC is a microcosm of a broader political crisis in the United States since the mid-20th century. As Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States:

“[After World War II], U.S. business leaders were so pleased with how the war stimulated industry that the president of General Electric [which regularly attends the TOC], Charles E. Wilson, suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for ‘a permanent war economy.’ (p. 397)”
This war economy has expanded despite the trend of Western governments increasingly turning to neoliberal “austerity” policies, especially since the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. As a result, national military budgets keep increasing while vital social services, infrastructure spending, and environmental protections are slashed. Meanwhile, the companies, institutions, and politicians responsible for this corruption face no consequences.

Recently, a representative from our group, Students for a Democratic Society, sat down with CIT Dean James Garrett to ask whether the TOC facilitators might consider disinviting war profiteers this year. The Dean said that the companies that attend the conference simply respond to an open call from the university, and that the facilitators refuse to ban particular firms – as doing so would deprive students of the freedom to seek employment where they wish.

But this argument is a dodge, in that it offloads responsibility for the Dean’s own decision to students. It isn’t as though every company in the world attends the TOC, offering students unlimited options. Rather, military contractors and weapons manufacturers are over-represented. Let’s be clear: in addition to its own wars in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military is indirectly responsible for the violence meted out by the 73% of the world’s dictatorships it supports. Saudi Arabia, one such ally, has already killed tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, in a war that has led to “the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people – three-quarters of the population – in desperate need of aid and protection, according to the UN.” In the past, the Saudi royal family also looked the other way as wealthy figures connected to its regime sent money and arms to al-Qaeda and ISIS.

So, to recap: companies welcomed with open arms to our campus each year are doing business with the U.S. and Saudi militaries, who in turn are supporting dictatorships and terrorist groups, respectively. If Carnegie Mellon higher-ups agree with this business model, they should say so directly and explain why – instead of blaming students for jumping at lucrative opportunities dangled in front of their faces.

Ironically, our university’s founder, Andrew Carnegie, was a staunch anti-war advocate. In 1910, Carnegie created the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank committed to “the abolition of international war.” Carnegie believed that war was “the foulest blot upon our civilization.” What Carnegie failed to see then – and what our college and university administrators fail to see now – was the essential connection between war and big business. War is immensely profitable, especially when it results in the toppling of governments that are unfriendly to U.S. business interests. But regardless of its outcome, war is an economic end in itself. It makes money for those building the weapons, those financing the weapons-makers, those broadcasting the violence in the media, and, increasingly, for the private militias actually fighting on the ground.

It isn’t surprising that Andrew Carnegie overlooked these economic factors. As a robber baron who mistreated workers and busted their unions, Carnegie wanted to abolish war without addressing its connections to an economic system he was personally profiting from. Dean Garrett refuses to address one of those connections on our campus nowadays, and through his inaction, he is drafting Carnegie Mellon students into the wars of the future.

The good news is that there is still time to say “no” to defense contractors. Were the TOC facilitators to do so, they would not find themselves in a lonely position in the world of tech. Earlier this year, more than 3,000 Google employees joined the successful call to end the company’s contract with the DoD, Project Maven, which would use AI to improve drone targeting. More than 100 at Amazon signed a letter protesting the company’s sale of facial recognition software to police departments as well as its work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is right now keeping more than 2,000 children in detention camps. This followed over 100 Microsoft employees’ protest of their company’s cloud computing contract with ICE.

These brave and principled workers already have the sorts of jobs that students at Carnegie Mellon are right now studying and striving to obtain. However, too many of us end up recruited to build tools for bombings, surveillance, and deportations. The ultimate blame for this lies with our administrators and their laissez-faire policies. But it’s on us, the student body, to tell them that we see them, that we object to their decisions, and that we refuse to enable war without even debating it.
If you are interested in helping us fight the dangerous relationship between Carnegie Mellon and war, you can learn more at