A Pipeline of Ideas: How the Rotterdam School of Management facilitates climate change by collaborating with the fossil fuel industry is the culmination of a year of systematic, in-depth analysis of ties between fossil fuel energy companies and the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), the largest faculty of the Erasmus University Rotterdam.
The report uncovers how Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Gazprom and many other fossil fuel energy companies benefit in far-reaching ways from interactions with the business school. This is problematic because these companies rely squarely on continued production and consumption of fossil fuels. They are responsible for unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, the dominant cause for recent global warming. RSM’s support for their business models renders the faculty complicit in facilitating climate change.
In governmental terms, Shell has been a key player in establishing the school and determining its initial orientation to serve own corporate needs. Shell and BP figure prominently in RSM’s advisory board where they co-participate in determining its strategy. Shell and RSM have contractually agreed that the company may influence both its curricula and students’ profiles.
Fossil fuel energy companies use RSM’s research and consultancy services to benefit their bottom line. Shell, NAM (owned by Shell and ExxonMobil), GasTerra (owned by the Dutch state, Shell and ExxonMobil), and GDF Suez (now Engie) paid to receive advice about how to improve the gas sector’s social license to operate, despite mass resistance against gas drilling in the Netherlands and the life-threatening earthquakes associated with it.
Shell also paid RSM for research that advised the government to decrease tax burdens for multinationals headquartered in the Netherlands. Shell is one such multinational. The source of funding has never been acknowledged, which is not in accordance with key principles of scientific practice. RSM professor Henk Volberda, who led the project, later became part of a team installed by the Dutch government to advise on improving headquarter establishment conditions. He used the research paid for by Shell to legitimate repeated calls for tax cuts. Although the recommendations were met with fundamental theoretical and practical criticism by several governmental agencies, they were nevertheless implemented. Despite his previous relationship with Shell, Volberda was part of the team as a representative of knowledge institutions but did not counter the criticism.
More RSM staff collaborated with fossil fuel energy companies, and in doing so crossed borders between academia and business in debatable ways. However, these collaborations are not reported in Erasmus University’s ancillary activities overview. The context and content of services provided can give rise to doubts about academic integrity at RSM.
For example, besides being a professor at the faculty, Cees Van Riel caters to the branding needs of (among others) fossil fuel companies such as Shell through his firm in reputation management. But Shell also financially supported and published in an academic journal that is founded by Van Riel and published in association with his firm. None of this is reported in Van Riel’s ancillary overview profile page. Concurrently, the co-founder of Riel’s firm and co-editor-in-chief of his journal worked for Shell in a branding project to make it the ‘world’s most admired company’. This context casts doubts over other academia-business boundary crossing interactions with the fossil fuel energy industry at RSM.
RSM’s student population is also exposed to fossil fuel energy companies, both on and off-campus, through their curricula and outside of it. The exposure predominantly relates to recruitment. For example, more than 60 employees of companies such as Shell, BP, and Statoil coach students on career choices. The industry figures on the campus visually and physically, ensuring continuous and unopposed branding.
The report is the world’s first to analyse ties between an educational institution and fossil fuel energy companies. It sets forth the overarching recommendation of ending all ties with these companies because they predominantly support a business model that poses a threat to the climate. This is not in line with the often assumed societal role of publicly funded universities such as the Erasmus University. There are no indications that the ties have worked or will work to make the companies more climate friendly within the timeframe necessary to meaningfully decrease their contribution to global warming.
Additionally, the report recommends that a code of conduct for collaboration with fossil fuel energy companies must be formulated and complied with to address their ethical implications; that entwinement between business and academia must be countered; and that transparency about ties with fossil fuel energy companies must be promoted.
On grounds of the report RSM and Erasmus University can take direct, cohesive and unambiguous climate action. Because its methodological approach is highly reproducible, other educational institutions can be subjected to similar analysis. Various groups already use the blueprint represented by this report to call for climate action at their institutions.
Importantly, this report also identifies systemic underpinnings that drive institutions such as RSM towards collaborations with the fossil fuel energy industry, a situation that must be addressed. Firstly, it finds that diminishing financial support from the government incentivized RSM to provide corporate services in attempts to relieve financial pressure. Secondly, RSM relies to a high degree on business school rankings to manage its reputation. The methodologies used by these rankings provoke interactions with (fossil fuel energy) companies.
The report, then, both raises questions at the level of RSM and the Erasmus University but also questions that far transcend these entities. They revolve around topics such as scientific integrity, the influence of corporations in higher education, and systemic drivers of institutional activities that bear subtle, but large ethical implications.
Entities on various levels are therefore called on to respond to the issues uncovered in this report. RSM and Erasmus University should obviously play their part. But the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the association of universities in the Netherlands, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity, and other entities are also called on to take due responsibility.