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

There are steps in the fallen snow somewhere in Gatineau, Quebec. Student politicians traveled from across the country to protest other student politicians who came to meet from across the country on a frigid Saturday in late November.

The Canadian Federation of Students, the CFS, a national student advocacy and service provider meets among the huddled bureaucratic buildings in a capital region Best Western for an Annual General Meeting. The future looks as stark as the day’s grey sky. Battling protesting heretics who want to see it dismantled and destroyed and a political landscape where its desperate voice resonates only so far into obscurity, CFS delegates must see the season’s first snow as poetic. It is going to be a long winter.

The cracks came years ago. In the 90s, sparse universities and colleges marked their detestation with referendums to disaffiliate. The CFS resorted to lawfare. The strategy must have seemed straight forward. Admit no loss; the façade must not be fractured. Local student politicians lead their flocks against what they conceived as an evil corrupt empire.

Whether the incompetence or carelessness, of staffers or the ploys of right wing insurgents, the CFS has become embroiled in trouble. Referendum after referendum, the CFS became smaller and smaller. Now it fights with all its legal and organizational capacity to hold onto to its last provincial forts on an increasingly hostile frontier. In 2009, 13 campuses wanted to leave. In 2013, it is at least 15. The CFS is cornered.

cropped-CFS-VOTE-NO-VOTE-YES
(image studentunion.ca)

There are only two options. It can continue to defend its lingering and lost legitimacy or rise and reinvent itself.

The CFS needs immediate innovation. The status quo simply can no longer do; most students either perceive it with anger or apathy. If the CFS choses to rise, it can do a couple things. Unifor, Canada’s largest industrial union, has the promising potential to change the Canadian landscape. They are looking to branch out. CFS could join them, save tens of thousands by combining administrative infrastructure, streamline services and give itself a new mandate when dealing with its members. Unifor could champion free education and the CFS could appeal to its working students, unionize their work places and create stronger lines of solidarity across society.

If that isn’t appealing, the CFS could rethink how it operates. This could be done with three Ls: Localize, Limit and Link-up. Create local legitimacy with binding general assemblies, limit the power of staffers and build institutional links with grassroots organizations and PIRGs.

Some thinking, a little elbow grease, and a lot of inspiration can make the great services the CFS provides greater. Instead of its flurry of press releases going straight into the trash cans of journalists and its organizing efforts bringing fewer and fewer people with every gathering, it can reorganize and galvanize.

The pessimism must be refused and rebuked. Those on the left should make no alliances with the conservatives who would like nothing more than to see every progressive institution, or institution capable of being progressive, destroyed. The CFS’ leadership should take note and act quickly.

It is bleak. Their belligerence and negligence must be ended soon, either by their own desire for positive, progressive change or the slow and painful result of their own stagnancy, stupidity and hard-headedness, the inevitable destruction and complete irrelevance of the CFS.

“So what are you doing now?” is the question that has been consistently posed of me since my arrival back home from my final year of university.  It’s a question that hits a nerve every time that it is asked.  It may seem innocent but it can be packed with judgment, it’s not so much a question as it is a gauge of ones usefulness.

Originally a Montrealer, I spent the last four years studying at Western University, formerly known as the University of Western Ontario, in London.  While at Western I actively participated in clubs, edited the film studies journal, and was a zealous member of an on-campus fraternity, while simultaneously maintaining a straight “A” average.  In listing my achievements at university my intent is not to self-congratulate myself (there are many students at Western who have similar if not better achievements than I), it is to implore my elders and those who claim seniority over me to lay off.  After four years of hard work and campus involvement, what am I supposed to do?  At least allow me to catch up on some sleep before you ask me to figure out my life.  Now, to return to the question that opened this article: “So what are you doing now?”

Say What Again -- I Dare YouWhenever I hear that question I feel like Samuel L. Jackson’s infamous character, Jules, in the scene where he interrogates his doomed victims in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction.  I feel like pulling my metaphorical Colt .45 out of my pocket, look my innocently curious interrogator in the eye and yell, “say what again! Say what again! I dare ya! I double dare ya motherf#%^er! Say what one more Godd@!mn time!”

It seems to me that university grads are not getting the credit they deserve.  More alarmingly, the university system doesn’t seem to get the credit it deserves either.  From an economic standpoint, fewer students are able to land jobs upon graduation.  However, economic trends fluctuate and that statistic may change.  Yet, of late, I’ve noticed that the university system does not retain the clout that it once yielded on a sociological level.  Students have just finished what could be their final educational achievement and they are quickly shoved into another stage of their lives as if their milestone was meaningless.  It is no longer enough to say that you graduated university.

Times are tough.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult for university graduates to get a job.  Thus, we are forced to either take jobs that we are under qualified for, or, we feel the need to jump into a “practical” graduate program, which we are not positive is the right fit for us.  It is this mission, this search for the sacrosanct entry-level job that I believe spells doom for the new generation entering the workforce.

Sure, parents can blame it on laziness cultivated by electronic stimulants.  They can blame it on poor work ethic exacerbated by caffeine boosting energy drinks, which fuel the notorious college “all-nighters.”  This is only the surface of the problem.

What truly is the issue with my generation is our lack of curiosity.  Though, we are not completely to blame.  How can we be blamed when we are taught that university is merely a factory where students are conditioned to enter the workforce without thinking twice about what they actually want to do?  We are conditioned to believe that business and economics are the only valuable programs to study.  I believe that there is more to education than finding a job.

Many folks bemoan the destruction of art.  Music is not what it once was.  Films have become cheapened.  Maybe one of the reasons that artistic production has deteriorated is because students are no longer encouraged to follow their artistic dreams.  Conversely, they are told to stay away from the study of arts because art does not cultivate the ability to get a job.

Graphjam-Bachelor-DegreeI have an arts degree and I am proud of it.  Will it land me a coveted job upon my graduation? No.  My friends who have graduated with finance and business degrees, on the other hand, will.  Many have received high paying and highly sought after jobs at investment banks, start up businesses and other such firms.  I think that this is wonderful.  I think that the economy depends on people like my friends to contribute to the economy.

However, I don’t believe that employment out of university should be the only criteria of one’s value or worth in society.  I don’t believe that the only jobs that are worth a damn are ones that are purely financial.  I believe that students, upon graduation, should not be coaxed into a career that they are not sure they want to pursue.  I believe that parents and elders should encourage younger members of society to take a breath, think about what they want to do, and then go after that goal with ambition, passion and hard work.

Next time you see your neighbour’s kid arrive home from university, think for a moment.  Rather than ask him his plans and what he is going to do next, congratulate him, and tell him (or her) that he made his parents proud.  Everything else will follow in time.