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Alums, students petition PepsiCo CEO’s honorary degree

Students link CEO to Trump administration, cultural appropriation,

Updated May 28 at 10:17 p.m. 

An online petition signed by alums and students calls for the University to stop its plans to award PepsiCo Chair and CEO Indra Nooyi an honorary degree.

The petition, which as of May 28 has 811 signatures, states that the University should not award Nooyi an honorary degree because she supports President Trump’s administration and PepsiCo appropriates “social movements” and has a supply chain that is “riddled with irresponsibly produced palm oil.” According to the petition, awarding Nooyi an honorary degree contradicts the fact that the University “prides itself on promoting positive social change through academic excellence, revelatory research and passionate students and staff.”

Every year, the University awards honorary degrees to select individuals who are chosen for their “distinction and accomplishment, recognizing their contribution to society in a myriad of fields and disciplines,” according to the University’s website. This year, Nooyi is one of six honorary degree recipients.

As chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo for over 10 years, Nooyi introduced the company’s Performance with Purpose philosophy, “which promotes making healthier products, practicing sustainability and supporting the people who live and work in our communities,” according to a University press release. Fortune magazine has ranked Nooyi as “the most powerful woman in business,” according to the press release.

“Recipients in any given year are pioneers, visionaries and individuals who have served their communities in important ways,” Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.

Despite the petition, Nooyi will receive her honorary degree at today’s Commencement. Clark declined to comment on the content of the petition. “Our values align with direct dialogue and engagement on matters of interest to members of the Brown community. The University does not feel that our values encouraging dialogue and engagement align with responding through the news media to matters expressed in online petitions,” he wrote.

Honorary degree candidates are selected by the Board of Fellows, a body within the Corporation, “after consultation with a faculty-student advisory committee,” according to the University’s website.

But those behind the petition are unconvinced that Nooyi deserves recognition from the University because of her work at PepsiCo. “I decided to join forces with fellow Brown alumni and students to use this opportunity to raise awareness to the various injustices PepsiCo commits and profits off of,” Charlotte Biren ’16, creator of the petition, wrote in an email to The Herald. “I also believe that this is a powerful moment to reiterate our commitment to a more just world.”

Though the petition is addressed to President Christina Paxson P’19, Biren has not sent the petition to the president since it has not reached its goal of 1,000 signatures. Regardless, the “goal is for the petition to increase awareness on PepsiCo's malpractices and encourage Brown to recognize those as well under Indra Nooyi’s leadership,” Biren wrote. To raise awareness, “the petition was circulated through personal social media accounts and also through environment action channels such as Rainforests Action Network,” Biren wrote.

The claims in the petition are unfounded and inaccurate, said PepsiCo’s Executive Vice President of Communications Jon Banner.

"(PepsiCo and its employees) respect, welcome and encourage advocacy on important issues facing society. All of us have roles to play in improving and protecting our world, and we are incredibly proud of the work we are doing across PepsiCo to make our products healthier, promote sustainable practices and strengthen communities. We hope people take the time to learn the facts about our company and the positive impact our efforts are making," Banner wrote in a statement to The Herald regarding the petition.

Nooyi joined Trump’s business advisory council in December 2016, though she angered many Trump supporters with remarks she made after the election, including saying that many of her employees questioned their safety after the election.

“As a Fortune 500 company, we engage with lots of different governments,” Jon Banner. “She’s done that with several administrations — there (are) 25 other CEOs on the panel.”

Benner also denied the claims that PepsiCo uses “irresponsibly produced palm oil.” Palm oil, taken from palm fruit, is used in many consumer products, including PepsiCo's products. The palm oil industry has been under fire due to its connections to deforestation, animal extinction, human rights violations and climate change. The petition singles out IndoFood, a food manufacturer that PepsiCo works with, for “exploiting its workers and putting children to work on its plantations.”

“We're not using palm oil linked to any of what (the petition) says,” Banner said.

Furthermore, in a statement directed at the Rainforest Action Network, Pepsico said it “recognizes that there are significant environmental and human rights challenges facing the palm oil industry. … Because of our relationship with Indofood, PepsiCo has worked with all parties to help resolve the complaint, consistent with our commitment to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

While Nooyi has yet to receive her honorary degree, the University has only twice before revoked an honorary degree, The Herald previously reported. This occurred most recently in 2015 when the University revoked Bill Cosby’s honorary degree following 35 sexual assault allegations.


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