Support independent, student-run journalism.

Your support helps give staff members from all backgrounds the opportunity to conduct meaningful reporting on important issues at Stanford. All contributions are tax-deductible.

Student group protests Salesforce chief scientist

SLAP takes issue with SymSys guest speaker due to his company’s ties to Customs and Border Protection

By and

Holding up signs that read “No Tech for ICE” and “Divest from Deportation,” 10 students protested the invitation of guest lecturer and software company Salesforce chief scientist Richard Socher in “SYMSYS 1: Minds and Machines,” on Tuesday morning.

The students, all members of the organization Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP), criticized Salesforce’s contract with Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Flyers distributed to audience members took aim at Salesforce and other large tech companies such as Amazon for “profiting from ICE” and contributing to “growing violence at the border.”

SLAP is a self-described “anti-racist, anti-capitalist” organization that aims to “mobilize students to fight the oppression of marginalized communities,” its mission statement reads.

Before beginning his lecture, Socher called on the protesters to open a conversation. The protesters then asked Socher about Salesforce’s involvement with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), to which he emphasized that Salesforce’s contract is with CBP, not ICE.

While both agencies exist within the Department of Homeland Security, CBP leads the Border Patrol and is mandated to enforce domestic trade and immigration laws at or near the physical border, whereas ICE primarily investigates and deports undocumented immigrants.

“[Socher] trying to make that distinction is not an excuse to not take responsibility for it,” protester Talia Flores ’21 told The Daily.

Salesforce’s contract with CBP allows CBP to use Salesforce Analytics and Service Cloud to modernize its recruiting process, manage its activities at the border and handle digital engagement with citizens.  

The discussion between Socher and the protestors lasted for about 15 minutes. Socher noted that he is “sympathetic to [SLAP’s] cause” and personally opposed to the actions of ICE, but that it is difficult for a corporation as large as Salesforce to “disentangle itself” from the U.S. government.

Given the lecture’s focus on the role and scope of AI, Socher elaborated that his and Salesforce’s AI research were not passed on to help CBP.

During its protest, SLAP mentioned a widely circulated letter, signed by more than 650 Salesforce employees, that urged CEO Marc Benioff to cancel Salesforce’s contract with CBP.

The Daily has reached out to Socher for comment.

At 11 a.m., a half hour into the 80-minute class, the protesters walked out of the class, chanting, “Cancel the contracts! Stop funding deportations!”

Luigi Sambuy ’18 M.S. ’19, a TA for SYMSYS 1, said he thought the question and answer session was “a very respectful exchange.”

“I’d love to see more of these exchanges at Stanford,” Sambuy said.

One student, however, saw the protest as an unfair attack.

“[Socher] didn’t even start his PowerPoint presentation until halfway through class because all the people that were protesting were asking questions about him and his life and working for Salesforce …  and attacking our guest lecturer,” Joanna Harber ’21 said. “And he was just trying to defend himself on the stage alone. I felt really bad for him. But he did a really good job of trying to understand where they were coming from.”

SLAP has begun circulating a petition to pledge not to work at Salesforce until it withdraws from its contract from CBP. A link to the petition was provided on their flyer.

“Advocacy organizations like Mijente and RAICES — led by and serving undocumented people — have explicitly and consistently asked you to cancel this contract and you have refused, citing that none of this technology enables the separation of families,” the petition states, addressed to Salesforce chief executive Officer Marc Benioff. “Unfortunately, family separation has been a hallmark outcome of this deportation machine for years.”

As of Tuesday evening, 79 students have signed the petition.

Richard Socher is scheduled to speak at CS 224N: “Natural Language Processing with Deep Learning” on March 5. SLAP intends to repeat the same protest.

 

Contact Dylan Grosz at dgrosz ‘at’ stanford.edu and Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Dylan is a senior majoring in Symbolic Systems and Economics. He very much enjoys playing guitar, listening to music, and reading FiveThirtyEight. As the Data Visualizations Director for the Stanford Daily, Dylan hopes to offer his data-driven approach to journalism as a vessel for others to navigate the vast, stormy seas of society. He will also usually do so in an overly dramatic metaphor.
Julia Ingram ’21 The Daily's Volume 256 editor-in-chief. She is a New York City native majoring in English literature and working toward a career in news reporting. Contact her at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.