Students Scrutinize HMC Clinic Program's Defense Industry Partnerships

Kyla Smith • The Student LifeIn the basement of the Parsons Engineering Building, glass conference rooms line the hall, their walls covered in mathematical formulas and scientific scrawl. Inside these rooms, clusters of Harvey Mudd College students tinker with 3D printers and tool kits. 

Welcome to Harvey Mudd Clinic, a program in which small teams of student engineers, scientists, and mathematicians work with corporate, national laboratory, and non-profit sponsors to develop solutions to real-world problems. The first of its kind, the Clinic program has enabled students for more than 50 years to make breakthroughs in biotechnology, energy, computer science, aerospace, and defense.

In recent years, the Clinic program’s relationship with the defense industry has been a contested issue on HMC's campus. Defense contractors Northrop Grumman, which manufactures U.S. military drones and missiles, and Raytheon, the world’s largest producer of guided missiles, are regular participants in the Clinic Program. 

Connor Stashko HM ’17, whose Clinic project works with the cancer center City of Hope on cancer research, believes that the Clinic Program's cooperation with the defense industry conflicts with HMC’s mission.

“I think it’s a betrayal of the mission statement [because] the mission statement [seeks] to produce engineers who are cognizant of the societal impact of their work. Meanwhile they’re recruiting students to defense contractors,” Stashko said. 

Professor Kash Gokli, director of the engineering Clinic, disagrees. The mission statement "doesn't say you shouldn’t do that work, it’s just that you better understand it before you do it," Gokli said.

Coco Coyle HM ’17, an engineering major working on a biomedical Clinic project, feels that Gokli’s interpretation of the mission statement is problematic.

“They expect us to consider the impact of our work on society but also do nothing about it,” Coyle said. “So in the mid-year report that you write at the end of the fall semester, there’s a section where you’re supposed to talk about the impact of this project on society, but it kind of feels like lip service, like ‘we know this is in our mission statement so we want you to think about it but then never return to it again and don’t do anything about it.’”

None of the Clinic projects are termed classified, meaning that they do not involve extreme weapons. According to Barry Olsan, director of corporate relations and Clinic coordinator, most Clinic projects are benign.

"Someone could say, 'boy, the national laboratories, they make nuclear weapons,'” Olsan said. “Well, for eight years we've worked on projects in nonproliferation; tons of students wanted to be on those … nothing to do with weapon-making but to do with weapon protection so we're more secure.”

According to Coyle, the Clinic Program charges industry sponsors approximately $50,000 to participate. Coyle thinks that accepting money from Northrup Grumman and Raytheon does not represent the values of Harvey Mudd or that of its student body. 

“While we’re not designing a super destructive missile, the project is still supporting those activities. How can you accept money from these people?” Coyle said. “To me, it just feels like the money is way higher than social impact right now. That really upsets me. It feels really contrary to Mudd’s values."

For students and faculty alike, the question extends to whether it is the role of the administration to ban these companies from campus. According to Gokli and Olsan, there are many students who are interested in working for the defense industry, and Clinic should not prevent those students from doing so. Only three of the 26 engineering Clinic projects this year are defense or aerospace related. 

“What we believe in are choices for our students,” Gokli said. “So if there are other students who don't want to work there, they don't have to. And there are very few of those projects anyway.”

But according to Stashko, the larger issue is that “there’s not much of a conversation on campus about doing work for defense companies.”

This semester, HMC students attempted to form a task force that would have a say in which companies come to career fairs. Stashko would like to see a similar reform in the Clinic program. 

“I think right now there’s not really any transparency at all,” he said. “With Clinic, it’s just the administration that decides who’s coming to campus and you can’t really have any say in it at all."

Gokli and Olsan said they had never considered the possibility of having a student task force involved in selecting industry partners.

"Let me put it this way,” Olsan said. “We have to approach 1000 companies to get 50 good projects every year. It's not easy--takes a lot of time for a bunch of dedicated people here.”

Gokli and Olsan repeatedly emphasized that no student is forced to work on a particular Clinic project. 

"This has been going on for decades; there's always been kids that don't want to work on a certain type of industry. They don't have to,” Olsan said.  

Coyle disagrees.

“If I were placed on one of those projects, I’d have to complete the project to graduate and would have no choice in the matter, even though I’d find the idea highly offensive,” said Coyle, who is interested in environmental engineering but said she was not placed on either of the two environmental projects this year. 

“I was placed on a project that is far out of my skill set and out of my interests, which I have to work on for an entire year. It was really difficult to feel that not only does the school not value me, they don’t value environmental justice,” Coyle said.

This is a developing story.