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University of Rochester Should Be More Transparent About Relationship with Military

George Payne

George Payne

Op/Ed by George Payne –

According to the July-August 2018 edition of the Rochester Review, the University of Rochester is the largest private employer in upstate New York and the fifth largest in the state overall, with an economic influence that extends from employment and capital investment to purchasing and research. Research alone generates a total estimated payroll of $275 million and an estimated 18 million in income and sales tax. In fact, over the past five years, the UR has received more than 1.7 billion in external funding from both federal and non-federal agencies.

Given the unquestioned economic and social prowess of the UR, I wonder if it is appropriate to scrutinize the university’s relationship with the military- industrial complex. Even though the UR has always been eager to serve the needs of the U.S. government and its military, it has often been reluctant to share the specifics of this service with the public at large. The latest example can be found in a September 16, 2018 Democrat & Chronicle article headlined, “$80 Million for Laser Lab at UR.” Journalist Brian Sharp reports that the “LLE is a smaller counterpart to the government-owned centers in California and New Mexico. The lab employs 350, has 100 students studying and working in some capacity at the River Road facility and routinely draws scientists and researchers from across the country. Its work has both civilian and military applications.”

Again, given how much money the UR brings to the economy in Rochester, I wonder if it is appropriate to ask what those military applications may be. Presumably some of the research and technological innovation is related to the manufacturing of weapons. Perhaps some of this technology may even contain the blueprint for weapons of mass destruction, weaponized artificial intelligence, and other new frontiers of killing that may not be ethical by conventional standards. Should the public know what is being developed in that laser lab? Should the UR student body know? Should all of the workers inside the lab know?

At what point is a program made purposely vague- and to some extent even secret- for the sole purpose of disguising what goes on behind closed doors? When does the call to protect national security become a cover that allows the university to simply protect their bottom line? Clearly the UR wants the benefits that comes with working alongside the military, but are they willing to be held accountable for the consequences of that partnership? Getting to the heart of the matter, do these corporate arrangements carry out the mission and values of a school that has traditionally been known as a bastion of the humanities? Economics aside, is this relationship necessary and honorable?

Trust me, I get it. The UR brings 27,000 jobs, has a labor income of 1.3 million, and purchases over 1 billion of goods and services. The UR gives a stupendous amount of charity and donates massive amounts of community service in our area. Predictably the vast majority of people living in western New York are more than content to remain in the dark about their complicity in the business of war making. Just keep the funds flowing.

But I care. In the words of Dwight Eisenhower, “We must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow.”

I want to know what is being designed for the military and what has already been implemented on the battlefield that has come out of that lab. With great power comes great responsibility. As far as I am concerned, the UR has a responsibility to be far more transparent about their relationship with the military than they have been historically. Just because they have the ability to use their resources to develop weaponry does not mean that they have an ethical mandate to do so. What is more, just because they bring jobs and funding to the western New York region does not give them a license to co-opt the talents and passions of young intellects. This last point reminds me of something the radical historian Howard Zinn wrote in an essay for the Saturday Review in October 18, 1969. Zinn’s words are worth recounting in full:

Knowledge is important because although it cannot confront force directly, it can counteract the deception that makes the government’s force legitimate. And the knowledge industry, which directly reaches seven million young people in colleges and universities, thus becomes a vital and sensitive locus of power. That power can be used, as it was traditionally, to maintain the status quo, or (as is being demanded by the student rebels) to change it…Those who command more obvious forms of power (political control and wealth) try also to commandeer knowledge. Industry entices some of the most agile minds for executive posts in business. Government lures others for more glamorous special jobs: physicists to work on H-bombs; biologists to work on what we might call, for want of a better name, the field of communicable disease; chemists to work on nerve gas; political scientists to work on county-insurgency warfare; historians to sit in a room in the White House and wait for a phone call to let them know when history is being made, so they may record it. And sometimes one’s field doesn’t matter. War is interdisciplinary.

George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, domestic violence counselor, and adjunct professor of philosophy. He lives and works in Rochester, NY.

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