RPI's long-standing ties to U.S. militarism

By Jacob Kaplan '20 September 13, 2019

Science does not exist in a vacuum. There are consequences, both good and bad, for every discovery. Scientists are often depicted as apolitical, only concerned with their work, and unconcerned by its implications. This trope is convenient for those who wish to absolve themselves of any guilt over the uses of their work. This is nihilistic and dangerous. As engineers, scientists, and programmers we are in a privileged position. We are in high enough demand that we can afford to think about the people we choose to work for. We must care about how our work is used. We must demand to have a say in how our work is used. We must take action if our work is misused.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference hosted by the Democratic Socialists of America. The conference's panels focused on social, economic, and political issues through a left-wing lens. One panel I attended was STEM in the Service of Empire: Scientists' and Educators' Complicity in US Militarism. The panelists discussed the military recruitment of scientists and engineers, the apolitical mindset of many people in STEM, and the willingness of science educators to push the narrative that technological progress always benefits society. Several colleges with historical ties to the U.S. military-industrial complex were mentioned by name. For the most part, they were famous schools one would expect to hear: MIT, CalTech, and Columbia. One school I was not expecting to hear but did was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The panelist brought up RPI because he called it a "feeder school" into intelligence agencies and military contractor companies. I had some awareness of the recruiting done on-campus by agencies such as the NSA and CIA and military contractors such as Mitre and BAE Systems. I was not aware RPI had a reputation as a "feeder" into these establishments. Since then, I have researched this topic more and wanted to share some things I have found and my thoughts.

Where do RPI alumni work?

This is a simple question that is hard to answer. There are around 100,000 living RPI alumni. Sending them all questionnaires is beyond my capabilities. The Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD) has some statistics but not as specific as I want. Instead, I used RPI's page on LinkedIn which lists 60,500 alumni living in the United States as of July 2019. That is more than half of the estimated number of alumni even assuming 10,000 of those alumni with LinkedIn profiles are dead. I need to note that LinkedIn profiles are self-reported and cannot be relied upon for complete accuracy; I believe they are sufficiently accurate for this piece.

Of the alumni with Linkedin profiles living in the United States, the top current and past employers are: RPI, IBM, Pratt & Whitney, Google, Boeing, Microsoft, Regeneron, GlobalFoundries, Amazon, Cisco, Apple, Deloitte, and Accenture. The top employers become more interesting when filtered by location. The top two employers of RPI alumni living in Washington D.C. are Booz Allen Hamilton and the United States Navy. In Boston, three of the top five employers are Raytheon, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and BAE Systems. The top employer of RPI alumni in Philadelphia is Lockheed Martin.

What do these companies do?

A lot. To say "Raytheon makes missiles" is misleading. To say "Raytheon makes electronics" is too broad. I cannot cover everything each company does — instead, I am going to focus on weapons and military equipment. I am aware this oversimplifies things but it is the most relevant aspect to my argument.

Raytheon makes missiles, anti-missile defense systems, radar, and air warfare simulators used to train U.S. Air Force recruits. Pratt & Whitney make engines for military aircraft. BAE Systems supplied fighter jets to Saudi Arabia which were used to bomb hospitals in Yemen. When criticized for this, BAE's chairman said, "We maintain peace by having the ability to make war." Deloitte is a consultant to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. Booz Allen Hamilton worked with the NSA on its surveillance project, PRISM. PRISM's existence was leaked to the media by BAH's most famous former employee, Edward Snowden. Lockheed Martin accounts for 10% of the money spent by the Pentagon.

What does RPI have to do with it?

Not much. The majority of RPI alumni do not work for large defense contractors. Of the 286,200 Deloitte employees, only about 100 are RPI alumni. Only around 40 of the 28,000 Booz Allen Hamilton employees are RPI alumni. We are not the sole source of the military-industrial complex's workforce.

Despite this, our ties to militarism are not negligible. Along with the workforce we provide, we also receive large amounts of research funding from government agencies. The Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center is funded by the United States Army and researches social networks (literal ones, not Facebook). This information is used to optimize the way the army is organized and understand the social dynamics of terrorist cells. Research into moral reasoning in robots conducted by the Rensselaer AI and Research Lab, also known as RAIR, is funded, in part, by the Office of Naval Research. There are more than just these two examples and I encourage any reader involved in research to look into the funding of their lab or organization.

President Shirley Ann Jackson has ties to the United States government. I'm sure many readers know she was the chairperson of former President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. Less well-known is that she was the chairperson of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999. The NRC has been criticized for advancing the nuclear power industry with little regard for safety, often extending the licenses of nuclear facilities that are not up to code. I'm not implying any participation on the part of Jackson, but it is worth mentioning.

What's the point in knowing this?

First, to be aware that this connection between RPI and the U.S. Department of Defense exists. Regardless of what one thinks about military and intelligence agencies, knowing about this relationship is useful. It clarifies why certain companies recruit on-campus more than others and how some research gets funded. It is also information that RPI students are entitled to know.

Second, to help us think about the places we work. Some people have no problem with the actions taken by the companies I mentioned. Other people do have problems with these actions. However, most people are not aware of those actions at all. Even if an employee is aware, their job may not be contributing to the problem. Why would a web developer for BAE Systems care what the fighter jets are used for? I don't have a good answer for that other than that people play larger roles than they realize.

The writer, Kurt Vonnegut, said the following in a 1985 commencement address to the graduating class of MIT: "My brother got his doctorate in 1938, I think. If he had gone to work in Germany after that, he would have been helping to make Hitler's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in Italy, he would have been helping to make Mussolini's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in Japan, he would have been helping to make Tojo's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in the Soviet Union, he would have been helping to make Stalin's dreams come true. He went to work for a bottle manufacturer in Butler, Pennsylvania, instead. It can make quite a difference not just to you but to humanity: the sort of boss you choose, whose dreams you help come true."

Be careful whose dreams you help come true.