Op-eds, Opinions

Duncan ’16, Borgonjon ’14, Bustos ’16, Landau ’20, Niculescu ’20 and Saji ’20: Warren Kanders still must go

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Op-Ed Contributors
Thursday, September 12, 2019

Warren Kanders ’79, a prominent University donor, recently resigned from his position as vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which should serve as a reminder of why Brown must cut its financial ties with Kanders. We find ourselves at a crossroads: Will the University lead by example and develop guidelines around its gift policy or will it continue to lend legitimacy to donors who reportedly profit from tear gas and suppression of social movements?

Almost two years ago in an op-ed in The Herald, a group of alums affiliated with environmental studies asked, “Why is Brown greenwashing tear gas and rubber bullets?” A year later, the College Hill Independent published a thorough excoriation of the same target, Kanders, who is now among America’s most controversial purveyors of tear gas. After months of activism led by Decolonize This Place, Kanders resigned from the board of the Whitney in July. Now, it is time to repeat the same questions asked in last year’s op-ed: Who is Kanders, what does he do and why is he still here?

Kanders is currently a member of the Presidential Advisory Council for the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and is a major donor to the Brown Arts Initiative and its annual Warren and Allison Kanders Lecture Series. He is also the chairman of the Safariland Group, which produces crowd control weapons like tear gas. From reports detailing the use of concussion grenades at Standing Rock, to tear gas used on migrant caravans at the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2018, to tear gas more recently employed at protests in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Safariland’s “products” have consistently aided in human rights abuses and the suppression of social justice movements globally. Despite claims that these products are “non-lethal,” the aforementioned op-ed detailed the harm inflicted on civilians by Safariland products.

Why do the President and the Brown Corporation, who lead an institution committed to academic excellence and positive social impact, continue to accept advice and money from the chairman of a company that develops products that strip migrants, refugees and marginalized peoples of their dignity and safety?

Brown, like all other institutions of higher education, relies on donations to subsist and grow. But the donations privilege more than just the University; by accepting a gift, Brown legitimizes the donor’s business practice and social status. In a practice known as “greenwashing” or “artwashing,” wealthy individuals and corporations try to sanitize their actions by donating to causes that boost their public image. In donating to Brown’s various programs and initiatives, including the fall 2018 art exhibit titled “On Protest, Art and Activism,” Kanders elevates his reputation as a socially-conscious benefactor while directly profiting from the suppression of social protests and attacks on people fleeing from violence.

We, as members of the Warren Kanders Must Go campaign and alum supporters of the movement, call on the University to engage in a critical conversation about the line between ethical and unethical donations. After all, aren’t we, as a campus, striving to lead by example and train young people to be both critical thinkers and active participants in answering difficult questions? Instances of violence by police states, aided by crowd control weapons, are increasing by the day — from Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Gaza to Kashmir, Puerto Rico and Ferguson. During moments of social unrest in response to increasingly explicit xenophobia and white supremacism around the world, we must reflect on our own institutional complicity in suppressing these movements.

As members of the Brown community, we deserve a basic ethical standard to guide us in whom we accept donations from and whom we allow to sit in positions of power. In the case of Kanders, the answer is clear: His involvement with tear gas should disqualify him from holding positions at or donating to the University. As a community, we should use our collective voice to put pressure on University leadership in pursuit of a world in which education isn’t funded by war merchants — and ultimately, a world in which war merchants no longer exist.

Some claim that universities have no power to stop the arms trade or broader economic trends. However, the history of university divestment campaigns indicates that academic institutions have the power to critique and transform the status quo. Divestment erodes the legitimacy of actors benefiting from social harms like apartheid in South Africa or fossil fuels, while sending economic signals to the market about questionable practices. Refusing donations from those tied to unethical businesses can have a similar stigmatizing impact. Other critics question the feasibility of refusing donations by asking, “What about all the other problematic donors at Brown University?” Well, give us the details! A thorough audit of the University’s biggest donors would be a good next step.

The question of whether gifts to the University derive from state-sanctioned violence and human rights abuses seems fairly straightforward, yet the administration’s resistance to even asking this question indicates that the answers will be damaging for the reputation the University tries to build for itself as a morally driven global leader. In 2011, the administration reiterated its commitment to “(maintaining) high ethical standards in investments and gifts.” Regardless of this professed institutional commitment to “the ethical review of gifts,” Brown’s standards remain extremely lax.  In February, President Christina Paxson P’19 stated the following: “It would be contrary to Brown’s values to use the rejection of gifts as a tool to take sides in, or make statements about, contested social and political issues. Although members of the Brown community have the right to express opposition to a gift, the mere presence of controversy around a donor is not a sufficient reason for declining a gift.” But is the violent legacy of Kanders’ career a mere “controversy”? Under the guise of civility and neutrality, Paxson has simply claimed neutrality while standing on the side of the oppressor and perpetuating the status quo. We argue that for Brown to act in line with its values, the administration should refuse all gifts from Warren Kanders, cut ties with him (including advisory or other formal positions) and publicly denounce the use of tear gas and other “non-lethal” crowd control weapons on migrants and peaceful protesters across the world. We also urge Brown to build on the recommendations of the Report of the Committee on Slavery and Justice to devise, implement and publicize strict procedures for ethical gift review, with the substantive involvement of students, faculty and staff.

In fact, the University should follow the lead of its students and faculty, many of whom have rallied in support of an ethical gift policy. In addition to the Warren Kanders Must Go campaign, some faculty have called for the University to reject gifts from Kanders — a move they say would be in line with the recommendations of the Report of the Committee on Slavery and Justice to “uphold a strict procedure for the ethical review of gifts,” according to a July article in The Herald.

We believe in the need for an ethical gift policy, which is why we are holding a town hall meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Urban Environmental Laboratory (135 Angell Street).

Where is the line between “mere controversy” and the enabling of state violence and documented human rights abuses? What are our values as members of the Brown community and how should they guide our practice? We do not foresee any easy answers to these questions, but they prompt necessary and timely discussions about the role of higher education institutions. Kanders must go, but that is just the beginning. We are excited to see what will take his place.

Sophie Duncan ’16 can be reached at sophie_duncan@alumni.brown.edu, David Xu Borgonjon ’14 can be reached at david_xu@alumni.brown.edu, Camila Bustos ’16 can be reached at camila_bustos@alumni.brown.edu, Nina Wolff Landau ’20 can be reached at nina_wolff_landau@brown.edu, Sebastián Castro Niculescu ’20 can be reached at sebastian_niculescu@brown.edu and Mayo Saji ’20 can be reached at mayo_saji@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.