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Technology

Tech recruiters were once welcomed on campus. Now they face protests

UC Berkeley demonstration against tech companies with ties to ICE
Demonstrators gather outside the Amazon store on UC Berkeley’s campus on Nov. 19 to protest data-mining company Palantir. Students at colleges across the country have been protesting Palantir and other tech companies that have ties to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
(Jeff Bercovici / Los Angeles Times)

Liza Mamedov-Turchinsky was beginning her junior year at UC Berkeley when she heard the data-mining company Palantir was coming to campus for a recruiting event. She wasn’t happy about it.

Palantir is among 43 companies that pay the school $20,000 each year for “unique access” to electrical engineering and computer science students for recruiting purposes. The company provides software to the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which it uses to screen migrants and conduct workplace raids.

On Sept. 5, she texted a handful of friends who shared her views on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the tech companies whose software ICE relied on to implement it. With Palantir coming to campus on Sept. 24, she wrote, “let’s organize to get them to drop it or disrupt?”

Because the event catered to honors students within the department, few others had heard about it. As word got around, the number of people in the group chat ballooned. Soon, it had spawned a new club, Cal Bears Against ICE, which publicized the event and planned a protest.

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One by one, under pressure from activists, student groups sponsoring the event withdrew their participation. The day before the scheduled session, Palantir canceled it.

Fall is recruiting season for tech companies at colleges, where students flock to booths at career fairs for lucrative positions at the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google. The biggest companies spend hundreds of millions each year to hire people trained in fields such as artificial intelligence, software engineering and data science to feed their rapid growth. Part of that effort is hyper-focused on college students, with companies flooding campuses with recruiters and swag as they compete fiercely for fresh talent.

As demand for high-tech skills continues to rise, companies vie to vacuum up the strongest graduates in science, math and data, said Martha Heller, chief executive of tech recruiting firm Heller Search Associates. Their collective appetite is prodigious. When Amazon recruits at Carnegie Mellon University, it books up eight conference rooms in a career center on campus. It is typical for the company to deploy 20 recruiters on campus at a time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

“Students are digital natives,” Heller said. “Beyond having the high-tech skills, companies getting their perspective on how the market is changing is of vital importance.”

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It wasn’t all that long ago tech was seen as the best possible place for students to land jobs post-graduation. The pay was high — six-figure base salaries and equity grants that could be worth millions — and the companies touted themselves as the answer to society’s ills, unlike the investment banks and management consultancies that competed with them for top talent. The proportion of Harvard students pursuing careers in tech tripled from 2011 to 2016, from 4% to 12%, according to the Harvard Crimson.

But as attitudes toward the tech industry sour, those campus job fairs have become sites of contention.

At universities across the country, including Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Duke, Carnegie Mellon and Brown, students have staged protests at recruiting events and demonstrated against tech companies that do business with ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection, including Microsoft, Palantir and Salesforce. They have called out Amazon for marketing its facial-recognition technology to immigration authorities and hosting Palantir on the Amazon Web Services cloud.

Some 3,000 students from 30 schools signed a document pledging they would not work at Palantir until it severs its contracts with ICE; roughly 800 people signed a petition calling on the dean of UC Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department to drop its partnership with Palantir.

It’s not clear whether these tactics are having a significant impact on recruitment.

At Facebook, which has no defense or law enforcement contracts but has been the target of protests over its privacy failures and other controversies, the rate at which college graduates accept full-time job offers has plunged from 85% to below 55%, according to CNBC. (Facebook disputed those numbers but did not provide any of its own.)

Palantir and Microsoft declined to comment when asked about the protests’ effect on their recruiting; Amazon and Salesforce did not respond to requests.

But student activism has in the past succeeded in altering popular perception of businesses, damaging not only recruitment pipelines but also stock prices and bottom lines. It is already resulting in the abandonment of scholastic-corporate partnerships worth tens of thousands of dollars, as campus activists leverage their control of a coveted resource: themselves.

‘Contributing to these evils is a choice’

The movement to kick Palantir off campuses was born in the same place as Palantir itself: in Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. It began with a student group called Students for the Liberation of All People, or SLAP, founded shortly after the election of Donald Trump.

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As the Trump administration ramped up the practice of separating migrant families, SLAP members such as sophomore Mariela Pizarro-Silva noted how Stanford students were being siphoned into the Silicon Valley companies that provided critical tools and infrastructure to the government agencies responsible for carrying out federal immigration policy.

SLAP members started distributing fliers outside Palantir’s office in Palo Alto and by a breakfast spot in the city’s downtown that caters to the company’s employees. In February, 10 students marched into a class where Salesforce chief scientist Richard Socher was presenting. Salesforce provides CBP with cloud and analytics services to recruit new agents and manage U.S. border activities.

“We really wanted our student population to be aware that the tech they create has social consequences, and is used in ways they won’t even be let in on,” Pizarro-Silva said.

Protests and recruitment boycotts against Palantir spread across the country after SLAP and Mijente, the national Latinx organizing hub, held a conference call in August for would-be leaders at other schools.

At a business and tech career fair at Harvard on Sept. 6, sophomore Abraham Rebollo and three friends staked out Amazon’s booth, papering their peers with fliers about ICE. Rebollo’s message to anyone who stopped to listen: “Working for any company that is contributing to these evils is a choice.”

In some instances, these tactics achieved their goals. After students protested at a Brown University career fair, the school decided to “pause” Palantir’s on-campus activity; the company was removed from the computer science department’s list of industry partners, which pay as much as $20,000 for access,according to Recode.

But sometimes the activists found it tough to convince their fellow students to shun what might be their most attractive opportunities.

Ezra Goss, a PhD student at George Tech, was among several who targeted a Palantir recruiting booth at a Sept. 27 career fair. Goss said security guards attempted to keep them from lingering near the booth, and some of the students he approached in the days leading up to the career fair weren’t willing to pledge not to work for Palantir. “Lots of people claimed to ethically agree with us but didn’t want to limit their options in the market,” he said.

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A student who helped organize a Nov. 19 rally at UC Berkeley and gave a speech there declined afterward to be quoted by name, saying he didn’t want to foreclose the possibility of working at Amazon or Microsoft after graduation. “Not too many people are willing to take action and put their names on things, and that’s totally understandable,” he said. If he did accept a job at a company whose products helped support policies he considered wrong, he said, he would consider it his responsibility to agitate for change from within.

Campus activists point to the way tech company employees have increasingly been pushing back against practices they deem morally objectionable within their companies as proof of a broader movement gaining traction. The last year has seen a wave of employee protests encompassing Google, Amazon and Microsoft, among firms.

But the results of that movement have been decidedly mixed. Google employee backlash pressured the company into pulling out of a Pentagon program called Project Maven, which uses artificial intelligence to improve applications for subjects such as drone targeting. But the company is still pursuing other contracts with the Defense Department. Microsoft workers wrote to their CEO asking them to cancel a $479-million contract to develop augmented reality tools for battlefield use; Microsoft is going ahead with the project.

While Seattle software company Chef announced that it will not renew its contracts with ICE, pressure from tech workers at Amazon, Salesforce, Tableau and Microsoft-owned GitHub have not resulted in policy changes. At Palantir, more than 200 employees signed a letter to CEO Alex Karp questioning the company’s work for ICE, the Washington Post reported in August. Karp responded with a September op-ed saying the company would continue providing products to ICE, on the grounds that “tech CEOs shouldn’t be making policy.”

‘A community pillorying’

The Palantir information session that inspired the formation of Cal Bears Against ICE was itself a product of the new scrutiny some tech companies are facing at colleges. Three months earlier, in June, a prestigious privacy conference held at UC Berkeley had renounced its Palantir sponsorship after hundreds of academics signed a letter decrying the company’s ties with ICE.

The September session was an attempt at a reset. It was billed as a discussion about ethics and technology led by a Palantir representative to address the company’s work with ICE. On the agenda were questions about how technologists should navigate tensions arising “in times when political appointees may direct civil servants to carry out problematic or even illegal acts?” according to an email sent by Courtney Bowman, who co-directs Palantir’s Privacy and Civil Liberties engineering team.

Bowman reached out to Cal Bears Against ICE on the eve of the canceled session asking for a meeting. Representatives of the student group said they would be open to a conversation, on the condition that it took place in a public forum. The back-and-forth continued for weeks after the event’s cancellation.

In several lengthy emails reviewed by The Times, Bowman argued for the need for a private discussion.

“I am willing to engage in a forum that provides clear boundaries for civil and respectful discourse — in other words a true dialogue. What I’m not willing to do is walk into an event where the grounds have been set for a community pillorying or trial before a fixed jury,” Bowman wrote on Oct. 21.

Palantir spokeswoman Lisa Gordon declined to comment.

UC Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department held a town hall on Oct. 24 to address the rising unrest over tech recruiting. At that event, according to the Daily Californian, John Canny, the department’s computer science division chairman, challenged the idea of weeding out companies from the corporate access program over the ethical objections of some.

“We don’t feel we’re morally superior to the students we’re supervising — our goal is to try to educate,” Canny said. “I just don’t see the advantage of us trying to make that decision as opposed to providing information so students can make better decisions.”

Canny said in an email the department is writing a report about Palantir to improve awareness for students about the company’s activities, but that removing Palantir from the program “appears problematic at this time.”

If students at university after university continue protesting Palantir, it would probably have a long-term impact on its ability to hire, said Heller, the tech recruiter. At the same time, she added, it’s possible for a company to overcome issues with its reputation, since college students hold different views and may weigh factors such as benefits and opportunities for advancement more heavily than ethical or political positions.

“If I’m Palantir, what I’m going to do is make sure on the campuses where we’ve had a lot of success bringing in people, we have representatives there smoothing over issues with ICE,” Heller said.

Sarah A. Soule, a professor studying organizational behavior and associate dean at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, said there is a long history of student protests denting companies’ reputations and ability to attract new talent. Her research has shown that new and negative information amplified by protests can impact stock price returns and shareholder behavior.

In the 1990s, students played a large role in calling attention to Nike’s use of sweatshops and child labor in its supply chain. In a 1998 speech, then CEO Phil Knight acknowledged, “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse,” although he blamed a downward sales trend on other factors.

A generation before that, campus protests focused on Dow Chemical Co., which in 1965 accepted a $5-million Department of Defense contract to manufacture napalm, a flammable gel used by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. As opposition to the war grew, inflamed by horrific images of children with napalm burns, students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and other schools gathered to protest the company’s recruitment efforts.

Dow Chemical’s reputation suffered and recruitment efforts were hindered. After four years, the company quietly stopped producing napalm for the military. It took years and aggressive marketing campaigns for the company to recover its reputation.

For a company such as Palantir, Dow’s experience of becoming a lightning rod for antiwar sentiment represents a cautionary tale. “People who don’t even know what Palantir does will begin to associate it with ICE,” Soule said in an email.

Beyond campuses, other prominent tech organizations have begun to shed associations with Palantir. AnitaB.org, the women in tech group that puts on the world’s largest conference for women in computing, dropped Palantir as a sponsor after a petition circulated. Lesbians Who Tech also removed Palantir from the list of sponsors for its annual conference in New York in August, which aims to promote LGBTQ-identifying people in tech.

As of yet, tech giants’ controversial clients haven’t translated into any real difficulty attracting college students, said John Sullivan, a professor at San Francisco State University professor who is also a recruiting advisor to companies including Google and Facebook. He said recruiters form relationships with college recruits online over time, and that protests at career fairs are unlikely to impede company access to students.

Employees raising ethical concerns presents a bigger threat to companies than student recruits, he said.

Sullivan advises companies with controversial contracts to present the middle ground, to effectively say, “We do business with ICE, but we also provide support to hospitals and other crucial institutions. Yes, we’re listening, but there’s a limit to what we can do. The shareholders still expect us to do business with the federal government.”

Still, Sullivan said new consciousness around tech is “a brand-new ballgame.”

“The younger generation has learned you can ask for things. ... They’re concerned about the environment, and concerned about ICE, so they’re more socially conscious than they have been in a long time, and they’ve learned how to make it be heard,” he said.

Staff writer Johana Bhuiyan contributed to this report.


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