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Duke doesn't really vet companies that recruit on campus, and it doesn’t want to start with Palantir

Should Duke reevaluate its process of deciding which companies can recruit on campus? 

Administrators and students have clashed over this question since controversy ensued about the revelation that Palantir Technologies—a data analytics company that recruited at Duke’s fall TechConnect career fair—holds a $42 million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Duke Student Government passed a resolution in December urging the University to cease its relationship with Palantir. However, administrators have struck a different tone.

Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, wrote in an email that it is “core to Duke’s values to strongly encourage critical thinking and open discussion” around the ways that companies and their policies impact people and other issues.

“Toward this end, we should not limit how students wish to raise critical questions with a prospective employer,” she wrote. “Some students may want to work for change from within a company, others may steer away from the same organization altogether. Others might want to learn more from a recruiter before deciding, and some may want to catalyze change from outside the process.”

McMahon said that she does not foresee the recent DSG resolution changing the administration’s decision.

Sophomore Jeremy Carballo wrote in a message to The Chronicle that permitting a company such as Palantir—“regardless of their other good work”—to recruit on campus is helping “a rogue federal agency take part in their acts of fear and oppression.” This, he argued, does not align with Duke’s value statement.

Among the listed values in the statement are that Duke “avoid[s] activities, pursuits or financial interests that are not compatible, in reality or perception, with our responsibilities” and that Duke “encourage[s] questions and challenges, holding individuals and organizations accountable for their actions and decisions.”

Duke’s process for recruiting companies

Bill Wright-Swadel, assistant vice president of student affairs and Fannie Mitchell executive director of Duke’s Career Center, noted that as long as employers “have legitimate jobs and are involved in hiring practices that don’t discriminate,” they are eligible to recruit at Duke. He added that, while some companies reach out to Duke, Duke also contacts employers first.

In Palantir’s case, he doesn’t remember which it was, but he wouldn’t be surprised if “either of those directions happened.” As a company engaged in both the private and government sectors, he said that Palantir attracts students from a variety of majors and career paths. 

Wright-Swadel said that the Career Center's mission is to provide students with the broadest array of opportunities as possible. 

These opportunities should represent the curriculum, students and faculty while also letting students have choices, he said. 

Therefore, Wright-Swadel explained that the Career Center shouldn’t be “in the business of prescribing [values]” through a vetting process.

“I don’t think you want me using my personal values to decide who’s coming, so we try to reflect the community,” he said.

McMahon said that if the University gets into “the process of vetting the values of an employer,” it would set the precedent of granting individual administrators the power to determine where students’ opportunities lie. 

Ravi Bellamkonda, Vinik dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that although Palantir’s technology is “used to enforce immigration policies that are deeply disturbing,” Duke cannot restrict “access to our campus to [all] people and companies that we find objectionable.” He also wrote that he does not believe that a subset of students “should decide for everyone which companies are okay or not.”

The Pratt School of Engineering hosts TechConnect in partnership with the department of computer science and with support from the Career Center. 

Senior Sandra Luksic said that Duke students having direct access to Palantir’s table at TechConnect should not outweigh the lives and safety of undocumented students. 

They added that by choosing to not reform its vetting process and allow Palantir to continue recruiting on campus, Duke is inherently contradicting itself, as “the lack of action is an action.” 

A ‘confounding’ situation

Wright-Swadel added that one of Duke’s values is “free speech and openness and choice.” Sometimes, it is very difficult for an institution to meet all of its beliefs concurrently, he said, but he broadly considered this a “case of representing our values and empowering students to make choices.”

McMahon said that the “confounding” part of the situation is that Duke is abiding by its ethical and moral principles through recognizing that it is not administrators’ role to perform a value assessment of companies and make decisions for the entire student body.

Carballo said that he understands the argument that Duke shouldn’t be deciding if companies are “ethical” enough to recruit students. However, he noted that Duke cannot foster “free choice without the weight of the irreparable effects that these companies cause,” and Duke should at least use its role as an institution to publicly denounce companies holding contracts with ICE.

Luksic emphasized that temporarily banning Palantir from having a table at TechConnect would be in “no way” taking away students’ abilities to make their own free choices or preventing students from working for the company. 

Rather than pausing Palantir’s recruitment on campus, McMahon said she is open to discussing other ways that Duke can “foster meaningful community engagement and address the same thing, which is supporting migrant communities and undocumented students.”

She talked about the possibility of having an open forum or working group that brings people in a conversation to better understand the situation.

Bellamkonda wrote that Duke can continue to “facilitate discussion of immigration policy and advocate for policies that are consistent with our values” and “shine a light on what it means to be a socially responsible corporation, so that our students can make their own informed choices about career opportunities.”

However, he wrote that it is also fundamental to Duke’s values to respect student’s right to protest policies and corporations counter to their beliefs. 

Family separation policies are “abhorrent to say the least,” Bellamkonda noted, explaining that engaging in political activism and encouraging students to be involved in civic life is the best way to effect real change.

Editor’s Note: Jeremy Carballo is a member of The Chronicle’s Community Editorial Board.

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