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Shell in deal with top university to influence its curriculum

by Emma Howard: MAY 16, 2017

Shell has a contractual agreement with a major Dutch university, which allows it to influence the curriculum and “the profile of its students”, according to documents seen by Energydesk.

The oil giant also paid Erasmus university hundreds of thousands of euros for conducting research into the business climate for multinationals in the Netherlands, invoices paid in 2008 and 2009 show.

The contract was signed in 2012 between Shell and the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), an international business school which is based at Erasmus university in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered.

It states that RSM will provide tailored business advice to Shell, in return for cash.

The director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) called the findings “disturbing” and warned academics to be “wary”.

The findings are published after Energydesk revealed Shell was strategically targeting young people, academics and business leaders, as part of a PR push designed to position itself as a low carbon leader – despite spending over $7 billion on efforts to drill in the Arctic.

Universities across the world have pledged to move their own money out of oil, gas and coal, but many continue to take funding from fossil fuel giants. In 2015, top UK universities admitted to having taken millions, prompting concerns about conflicts of interest.

The university, which ranked 69th in the 2017 world university rankings, said it “has nothing to hide”.  It said that Shell has played “no formal part” in the development of its curriculum and would create a publicly available register of its corporate ties, in response to the findings.

But Stuart Parkinson, the executive director of SGR, a membership organisation for scientists, engineers, technologists and architects, told Energydesk:

“It’s disturbing to hear of the close relationship between a major oil corporation and yet another leading university. Shell admits that it’s not planning to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio within the next 20 years. This, in my view, is deeply irresponsible. Major changes in global climate are already under way, and without a global transition over that period, catastrophic effects will be extremely hard to prevent. Academics should be much more wary about having close ties to a corporation which is not taking the threat of climate change seriously enough.”

The deal

The contract outlines the formation of “sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship between Shell and RSM, based on agreed and long-term objectives,” under the guidance of a steering group that matches relevant academics with business areas targeted by Shell.

It states that Shell will be free to “potentially influence the design of the RSM curriculum and the profile of students who attend”.

The business school will also aid Shell’s recruitment efforts, the contract states. The career service at the business school will advertise job opportunities, hosting speakers from Shell and “organising and facilitating company events whenever appropriate.”

The full contract also states: “RSM has one of the largest research capabilities in Europe. RSM can provide research expertise to Shell (at cost), focusing on some of Shell’s key interests”

A photograph taken last week of an abridged version of the contract, displayed in public, suggests it is still in force. Correspondence between Shell and RSM, seen by Energydesk, suggests the university is pushing for closer collaboration.

In an email, dated June 2016, to a senior executives at Shell, a staff member at RSM says:

“We would like to present to you how a broad spectrum of relevant expertise in combination with a high volume of talented young people is being ‘produced’ by RSM and why we should therefore strive to work towards a much more substantial strategic partnership between RSM and Shell.

The sustainable management issues around the challenges and opportunities Shell is facing match to a large extent the focus of RSM and its 7500 students and 350 researchers.”

This response “could have been sent to basically any company”, said Marianne Schouten, a spokesperson for the university.

She told Energydesk: “We want and need to work with the corporate world in the broadest sense. We are proud of our students and want them to be a force for positive change in the world – and enable this change where needed.”

The documents were obtained through Dutch freedom of information laws and are part of a body of research conducted by Vatan Hüzeir, a sociology lecturer at Erasmus university and the director of sustainability think-tank Changerism. The study into the university’s relationships with  the fossil fuel industry was initially funded by the university, but it said the researchers had “diverted from their original brief”.

New PR strategy

Last year, Energydesk revealed Shell’s new marketing strategy to position itself as a corporate leader en route to a “net-zero emissions” future.

In a leaked PR brief, Shell outlined young people, business leaders and academics as key targets for its new marketing strategy.

The Netherlands was identified as a primary market, alongside the UK, the US and Canada.

It cites “energy engaged millenials” as a key target group for growing “brand loyalty”, because “as the business influencers, opinion leaders, customers, employees and citizens of the future their views will become increasingly important for Shell as time goes on”.

The new strategy will also “help ‘open doors’ in building relationships with key stakeholders in support of business objectives”, it says.

But in the same document, Shell warns: “we have no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years”.

In a statement published online by RSM and Erasmus University, dean Steef van der Velde said that corporations have no say in their education or research programmes:

“The process of developing and formulating a curriculum is handled with great care within the university with scholars and students participating. Neither Shell nor any other company plays a formal part in this process.

Of course, external organisations and stakeholders are involved during the accreditation process and programme evaluations. After all, the extent to which an academic programme connects to the requirements of the employment market is an important factor in students’ decisions to enrol in that programme.”

“Not a single part of RSM’s strategy and of its execution is connected to fossil fuel companies in any way, and in no way the Advisory Board determines RSM’s strategy. Curricula can be set and changed only by means of a very rigorous process that involves RSM’s Programme Committees and the various accreditation organisations.”

Shell responded to Energydesk’s request for comment by pointing to RSM’s statement on the matter.

In regard to funding research by the university, a Shell spokesperson added: “Dutch employers’ organization VNO-NCW commissioned the research project in 2009 on behalf of (a group of) its members. Shell contributed financially, as was also confirmed by VNO-NCW. Multinational companies create a lot of jobs and are of great importance to the Dutch economy.”


Shell RSM Contract 1

Shell RSM Contact 2


A Pipeline of Ideas

How the Rotterdam School of Management facilitates climate change by collaborating with the fossil fuel industry is the culmination of a year of systematic, in-depth analysis of ties between fossil fuel energy companies and the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), the largest faculty of the Erasmus University Rotterdam.



The report uncovers how Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Gazprom and many other fossil fuel energy companies benefit in far-reaching ways from interactions with the business school. This is problematic because these companies rely squarely on continued production and consumption of fossil fuels. They are responsible for unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, the dominant cause for recent global warming. RSM’s support for their business models renders the faculty complicit in facilitating climate change.

In governmental terms, Shell has been a key player in establishing the school and determining its initial orientation to serve own corporate needs. Shell and BP figure prominently in RSM’s advisory board where they co-participate in determining its strategy. Shell and RSM have contractually agreed that the company may influence both its curricula and students’ profiles.

Fossil fuel energy companies use RSM’s research and consultancy services to benefit their bottom line. Shell, NAM (owned by Shell and ExxonMobil), GasTerra (owned by the Dutch state, Shell and ExxonMobil), and GDF Suez (now Engie) paid to receive advice about how to improve the gas sector’s social license to operate, despite mass resistance against gas drilling in the Netherlands and the life-threatening earthquakes associated with it.

Shell also paid RSM for research that advised the government to decrease tax burdens for multinationals headquartered in the Netherlands. Shell is one such multinational. The source of funding has never been acknowledged, which is not in accordance with key principles of scientific practice. RSM professor Henk Volberda, who led the project, later became part of a team installed by the Dutch government to advise on improving headquarter establishment conditions. He used the research paid for by Shell to legitimate repeated calls for tax cuts. Although the recommendations were met with fundamental theoretical and practical criticism by several governmental agencies, they were nevertheless implemented. Despite his previous relationship with Shell, Volberda was part of the team as a representative of knowledge institutions but did not counter the criticism.

More RSM staff collaborated with fossil fuel energy companies, and in doing so crossed borders between academia and business in debatable ways. However, these collaborations are not reported in Erasmus University’s ancillary activities overview. The context and content of services provided can give rise to doubts about academic integrity at RSM.

For example, besides being a professor at the faculty, Cees Van Riel caters to the branding needs of (among others) fossil fuel companies such as Shell through his firm in reputation management. But Shell also financially supported and published in an academic journal that is founded by Van Riel and published in association with his firm. None of this is reported in Van Riel’s ancillary overview profile page. Concurrently, the co-founder of Riel’s firm and co-editor-in-chief of his journal worked for Shell in a branding project to make it the ‘world’s most admired company’. This context casts doubts over other academia-business boundary crossing interactions with the fossil fuel energy industry at RSM.

RSM’s student population is also exposed to fossil fuel energy companies, both on and off-campus, through their curricula and outside of it. The exposure predominantly relates to recruitment. For example, more than 60 employees of companies such as Shell, BP, and Statoil coach students on career choices. The industry figures on the campus visually and physically, ensuring continuous and unopposed branding.

The report is the world’s first to analyse ties between an educational institution and fossil fuel energy companies. It sets forth the overarching recommendation of ending all ties with these companies because they predominantly support a business model that poses a threat to the climate. This is not in line with the often assumed societal role of publicly funded universities such as the Erasmus University. There are no indications that the ties have worked or will work to make the companies more climate friendly within the timeframe necessary to meaningfully decrease their contribution to global warming.

Additionally, the report recommends that a code of conduct for collaboration with fossil fuel energy companies must be formulated and complied with to address their ethical implications; that entwinement between business and academia must be countered; and that transparency about ties with fossil fuel energy companies must be promoted.

On grounds of the report RSM and Erasmus University can take direct, cohesive and unambiguous climate action. Because its methodological approach is highly reproducible, other educational institutions can be subjected to similar analysis. Various groups already use the blueprint represented by this report to call for climate action at their institutions.

Importantly, this report also identifies systemic underpinnings that drive institutions such as RSM towards collaborations with the fossil fuel energy industry, a situation that must be addressed. Firstly, it finds that diminishing financial support from the government incentivized RSM to provide corporate services in attempts to relieve financial pressure. Secondly, RSM relies to a high degree on business school rankings to manage its reputation. The methodologies used by these rankings provoke interactions with (fossil fuel energy) companies.

The report, then, both raises questions at the level of RSM and the Erasmus University but also questions that far transcend these entities. They revolve around topics such as scientific integrity, the influence of corporations in higher education, and systemic drivers of institutional activities that bear subtle, but large ethical implications.

Entities on various levels are therefore called on to respond to the issues uncovered in this report. RSM and Erasmus University should obviously play their part. But the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the association of universities in the Netherlands, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Netherlands Board on Research Integrity, and other entities are also called on to take due responsibility.

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One Comment

  1. Woba Fett says:

    This is quite a disturbing find! I hope these kinds of soft ties between institutions and climate wrecking organisations like Shell get severed!