How Can Student Activism Combat Corporate Influence?

Special thanks to Aliza McHugh, Thomas Hexter,  Ana Perez, Mackenzie Feldman, Arianna Maysonave, Kate Sabison and Lila Cooper


Monsanto Library of Washington University in St. Louis. Dow Engineering College at University of Michigan. Bayer Plant Science Building at Texas Tech. These buildings were named after the agro-chemical corporations that pour millions of dollars into scientific research and technology at each university. In exchange, they received a lasting namesake. This is not surprising— as public funding becomes scarce, private-sector funding has become commonplace at public universities.  


At Herbicide Free Campus (HFC) we harness the power of student activism to work against these university and corporate failures. We believe the priority should be on the health and wellbeing of those working at and attending a school or university; so we seek to eliminate herbicide use on school grounds and transition to organic land care to protect students, staff and groundskeepers from the harms of synthetic chemicals. We also amplify a wider conversation about the consequences of biocides on farmworkers, food systems, and the environment. Because of our mission, we understand that the relationship between corporations and public institutions can affect student advocacy work by creating a disproportionate power struggle for campus campaigns. It has become part of our mission to change this dynamic.


A 2012 Food and Water Report on corporate influence states that “between 1970 and 2006, the latest years for which data is available, total private agricultural research expenditures nearly tripled from $2.6 billion to $7.4 billion, in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars.” The report reveals that private funding “underwrites research grants, endows faculty chairs, sponsors departments and finances the construction of new buildings.” As land-grant university funding has increased from industry, federal funding has decreased over the past 15 years.  


The entire student experience —from curriculum creation to research exploration to divestment campaigns — has been shaped by corporate influence. Many universities say they’re committed to student well-being and sustainability, but through our organizing we know that’s not the case. Most public and land grant universities use agribusiness-sponsored research and toxic herbicides, which neglects their responsibility to protect the environment and the people within it. 


Our campaign started in 2017 at University of California Berkeley, when we first knew that we were exposed to chemicals at our school. Professor Ignacio Chapela shared vocal opposition to "dangerous liaisons with the biotechnology industry," which led to a five-year, $25 million deal that gave a Swiss biotech firm rights to patents by Berkeley researchers and influence over research projects. 


There is little transparency regarding conflict of interest reporting from universities and their employees.  Because of this, multinational agrochemical corporations like Dow/Dupont, Syngenta and Bayer/Monsanto, have ties to universities for research, sponsored events, and journal articles. 


Herbicide-Free Campus is driven by the inherent discrepancy between research that supports corporate agendas and research that focuses on holistic land management. While agricultural research on toxic pesticides is a current part of the land grant university model, it is critical that this research is neutral, transparent, and unhindered by corporate influence. Controversial conclusions that promote the safety of pesticides and are solely coming from research with agro-chemical buy-in, should not extend to university landcare. 


HFC witnessed a direct conflict of interest when our activism to ban glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, from all University of California (UC) campuses was met with backlash. After HFC pushed to temporarily ban the chemical in 2019, the ban prompted retaliation from the University of California Weed Science Cooperative Extension Specialists— a group who claims glyphosate is not a cancer causing chemical— and Brad Hanson, a UC Davis weed specialist and member of the Task Force and the UC Weed Science Cooperative. HFC members later uncovered that Hanson received over $700,000 in gifts and payments from the agrochemical industry. When we raised this issue, Hanson was removed from the task force. There is power in university students exposing corporate influence. Many people in positions of power receive funding from self-interested corporations, but youth activists are in a unique position to uncover and take action on these cases. 


Students are recognizing their ability to investigate, speak up, and act on inequitable and harmful investment practices occurring at their institutions. From oil divestment campaigns to organizations like UnKoch My Campus, Pour Out Pepsi, and Uprooted and Rising, students are constantly working to transform their campus by dismantling systems of power as well as confronting complicit institutions. 


As students, faculty, groundskeepers, and campus communities begin to realize their collective power  and unite around a common ideology, we can challenge the corrupt systems that have co-opted our educational rights. We can no longer look to profit and the value system of the past, to drive our research. We must look to the future and the values of environmental stewardship to create a brighter, more equitable future. As activists, we make the movement move. If you are interested in exploring the ties to corporate influence at your university, connect with Herbicide-Free Campus or your local divest movement! 

Tags: Student & Campus Organizing, Youth Activists Stories