Philippe Tanguy, a top executive from the multinational oil corporation Total, is set to become the new director of Polytechnique, and more than a few people are concerned. The school board has recommended Tanguy for the job despite the growing pushback and it’s now up to Education minister Hélène David to give the final and formal approval. The minister’s office only stated that they took notice of the recommendation and cannot comment further until a decision is rendered.
A group of students and employees called the Regroupement de Poly contre Total Éducation (RPCT or Poly Coalition against Total Education in English) argue that their beloved engineering school should not be so tightly associated with a company like Total – which apart from being the actual definition of the frightfully influential Big Oil, has a spectacular record of human rights abuses, environmental disasters and tax evasion.
“We fear that this nomination will publicly associate Polytechnique with a corporation that media and authors criticize and accuse of heavy environmental and human casualties,” pleaded the RPCT in an open letter cosigned by multiple environmental groups, as well as Québec Solidaire and the federal and provincial Greens.
Total: A history of scandal
Total, as one of the seven biggest oil companies in the world, has an unsurprisingly long list of scandals. Their most notable exploits include spilling roughly 20 000 tons of oil in French waters and paying bribes to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq through the infamous oil-for-food program. They were also sued for literally using slaves to build a pipeline in Myanmar in the 90s*. Quebec author and authority on tax evasion Alain Denault recently eviscerated the company in an essay entitled De quoi Total est-elle la somme? in which he describes fiscal shams and political power worthy of the best conspiracy theories.
Tanguy started working for Total in 2009 and he is now one of its Vice Presidents. He is expected to resign to become Polytechnique’s director, but that is not enough to appease the critics.
“To some extent, working that long for a company and getting to such a high position means endorsing the company’s methods,” thinks RPCT spokesperson Philippe Bouchard-Aucoin. “And with Total being Total, … It’s very worrisome to have someone who can have this sort of mentality heading a university.”
One too many footholds for the private sector at Polytechnique
The RPCT is not too happy with Polytechnique being directed by someone from the private sector and even less with that someone being from the oil industry. They urge their school to follow the lead of other universities who have started to distance themselves from the fossil fuel industry, including Stanford, Oxford and even Québec’s Université Laval.
“In Quebec, in Canada and internationally the private sector has an increasingly strong hold on universities and the industry has an increasingly strong influence on research,” remarked Bouchard-Aucoin.
He is not wrong. According to IRIS, the private sector’s share in Quebec universities’ financing has almost tripled in the last 30 years, going from 7,5% in 1988 to 21,5% in 2015.
Philippe Tanguy has made it very clear that he wants Polytechnique to continue down this path. Like many other directors, he has nothing but good things to say about public-private partnerships in research. In fact, it was a vital part of his job at Total as VP for Research and Development. In 2015, Total had more than 800 such contracts with various universities across the world.
But having a director so keen on mixing corporate interests and university research has its dangers, underlines Philippe Bouchard-Aucoin:
“If studies don’t go in a direction [that helps the industry] , will they be done anyway? Will they have a budget? Will professors be able to publish the results of a research made for an oil company if it demonstrates that it’s bad?” questioned the physics engineering student.
He admits that there is very little chance that the Minister rarely, if ever, rejects the school board’s recommendations in such cases. Philippe Tanguy is 99% sure of becoming the new Polytechnique General Director.
The RPCT vows to ”make sure that Total doesn’t meddle with the school’s decisions, and that the oil industry doesn’t edge in Polytechnique; make sure that investments in the industry don’t take up the majority of the school’s investments and that the professors still have an intellectual liberty.”
“There will be a lot of us watching Mr Tanguy’s actions very closely, to make sure that our fears don’t become reality,” promises Philippe Bouchard-Aucoin.
*A previous version of this article stated that Total had to settle a lawsuit in this case, but the truth is more complex. It’s their american partner in the project, Unocal, who had to settle in american courts. Total, a French company, was brought to justice in France and Belgium, but the suits had to be dropped in both cases.
* *Featured image by Laurent Bélanger under Creative Commons