Academic Freedom, Corporate Relationships, and the BP Archive

Archives are essential repositories where information can be stored for posterity, sorted for investigation, and arranged for the public good. Historians, researchers, journalists, campaigners – all draw on the rich documentary record contained in governmental, organisational and corporate archives.

We should welcome such archives to our campus. They benefit our community and signal the prestige of our institution. The BP Archive, however, is no such institution of academic progression.

Imagine that our campus housed an archive on the old Russian intelligence service, the KGB. Imagine this archive not only contained the documentary record of the KGB, but was entirely controlled and staffed by KGB officers.

Imagine still more that the KGB was leased half of one of the finest buildings on campus, rent-free. The KGB – an intelligence service which perpetrated human rights abuses, disseminated propaganda, and more – controlled the entire flow of information to those who wanted to view it. They used it to promote their reputation, and conceal their crimes. Crucial documents regarding historical periods of great interest to the public were kept in utter secrecy.

If this hypothetical situation pertained in reality, one would expect an outcry. Students and staff would demand this heinous intelligence service vacate campus, and hand over the documents to the University’s expert archivists, who could manage them in the public interest.

This is actually directly analogous to the situation at the University of Warwick today. BP – a company which was just branded the top European company blocking the transition to a renewable energy system, is accused of complicity in serious human rights abuses in Colombia, and is responsible for the worst off-shore oil spill in history – controls and manages its only UK-based corporate archive on our campus.

This Archive isn’t used as a neutral vassal for academic knowledge, but, in BP’s own words, to “enhance its reputation”. Billions of pounds worth of vital renewable technology research conducted by the company – before it sold off most of its renewable interests – is kept sealed away from everyone, due to its pre-1976 access rule (and despite public claims to the contrary by Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s Chairman). The flow of information is controlled from start to finish, BP vetting all documents for “commercial sensitivity” before allowing them to be viewed, and maintaining a veto over any articles or documents researchers wish to put into the public domain. The staff openly state that their “primary focus is on supporting the BP businesses globally”. The University has absolutely no control over any of this, and has absurdly handed over 59% of the Modern Records Centre to BP for 50 years, rent-free.

Fossil Free Warwick University believes that access to these files should not be determined by a for-profit company, and that this necessarily conflicts with the aim of the University: to be a place of transparent research and unfettered academic inquiry, functioning in the public interest. Indeed, we believe that the notorious lack of transparency at the Archive is not incidental, but a direct consequence of it being subject to direct corporate control.

As such, when we say we want ‘BP Off Campus’, what we are demanding is that the relationship between BP and the University be completely severed, and that we stop being complicit in this horrific company’s propaganda efforts. Our central demand is for control of the Archive to be handed over the MRC, to be managed in the public interest, and in-line with academic standards of free inquiry.

The point mustn’t be lost that BP is a fundamentally appalling company. Allowing it to carve out an enclave in the middle of campus lends it legitimacy and suggests that we’re happy to be making deals with such an organisation. As Chris Maughan, IAS fellow and sessional tutor, says: “The relationship between the University of Warwick and the BP Archive must be overhauled. Not only do the current arrangements constitute an affront to the democratic value of open and accessible archives but also certainly contribute in shameful ways to the ‘greenwashing’ of BP’s public image.”

Academic Freedom, Corporate Relationships, and the BP Archive

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