Student group pushes for new buying policy

STAND wants the U to change its purchasing policy to avoid minerals used in certain tech products.

Kyle Stowe

When Manju Connolly  arrived at the University of Minnesota last fall, she didn’t think much of the minerals that were used to make parts of her laptop and cellphone.

But after some time at college, she learned that portions of profits from trading those minerals went to rebel groups in central Africa responsible for civilian deaths.

“It was really eye-opening,” Connolly said. “I had never taken the time to think about it.”

Now, STAND, an anti-genocide student group of which Connolly is a member, is pushing the University to buy technology products from companies that thoroughly trace and audit supply chains used in the production of those items.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, armed rebel groups often profit from the trading of several minerals, including tin and tungsten, used in consumer electronics. 

STAND President Emily Milke said the group’s initiative asks the University to eventually change its purchasing policy to ensure the school does its “due diligence” to buy electronics from companies that track the origins of their materials.

The University spent more than $49 million on technology products in 2012, according to University Purchasing Services  data obtained by STAND.

Current policy states that “departments must purchase goods and services as economically as possible according to the specified standards of quality and service, while giving responsible suppliers fair consideration,” according to University policy.

Before the University could amend its purchasing policy, Milke said, the initiative has to pass through several decision-making bodies.

The group drafted a position statement, and the Minnesota Student Association approved it Nov. 5.

Next, the statement will go to the University Student Senate for approval and President Eric Kaler  for signature. If both approve the statement, Milke said, STAND hopes to begin talks with University Purchasing Services  about amending current purchasing practices.

Kirk Allison, director of the School of Public Health’s Program in Human Rights and Health,  said universities around the country are adopting conflict-free policies in order to raise awareness of the mineral trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“I think universities who want to be global citizens and show high moral and ethical standards can make an impact by implementing a conflict-free policy at relatively little cost,” he said.

The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University already have conflict-free policies.

Alex Cole, co-director of MSA’s facilities, housing and transit committee,  said he voted against the position statement when MSA passed it because he thinks most people aren’t well-informed about the issue.

While Cole said he thinks the genocide in some parts of central Africa is “horrible,” he said he would rather see upper-level government officials handle the situation.

“I don’t think the University students should be influencing the decisions of whether or not we should strip away business from companies that get materials from other countries,” he said.

Allison said if a policy change shows that current electronics suppliers aren’t sufficiently monitoring their supply chains, several alternative companies around the United States that monitor for conflict minerals could serve as alternatives.

“Existing options aren’t the only options,” he said.

Milke said students can play a bigger role in putting an end to the genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo than they might think.

“We have a huge voice at the University,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t overlook that.”