Universities are still enabling Big Oil — but not without backlash
Students, faculty, and alumni want their institutions to cut off fossil fuels for real.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Last year, after a decade-long battle against entrenched industry interests, Harvard University finally divested its endowment from fossil fuels. It was a hard-won victory — but for Harvard and the many elite academic institutions that followed suit, the work of cutting ties with fossil fuel companies remains sorely unfinished.
Even after divesting their endowments on the grounds that the fossil fuel industry is continuing to perpetuate and lie about the climate crisis, many academic institutions still allow oil and gas giants to hold on-campus recruiting events, fund their research, sit on their boards, and speak at their events. The result: fossil fuel companies are able to co-opt academia to target the next generation of workers, greenwash their reputations, and shape discourse on the policies that directly affect them.
Now, students, faculty, and alumni are fighting back.
On October 12, nearly 30 Harvard and MIT students, organized by Divest Harvard, disrupted a recruitment event by ExxonMobil, citing concerns about the oil giant’s greenwashing and lies about its climate commitments, as well as its efforts to undermine academic research from the very schools at which it was attempting to recruit. The week prior, students at Brown University held a similar disruption; protestors reportedly far outnumbered students looking for jobs at both events. In September, Birkbeck, University of London became the first academic institution to ban fossil fuel companies from recruiting students through the university’s careers service.
Andrew Chu, a first-year student at Harvard who attended the October 12 protest, said Exxon has no place on a university campus as long as it is intent on profiting from the collapse of a habitable planet. “They’re meant to attract students by selling companies’ mission as something that young students would be interested in, as well as a good career to get into,” he said. “But it’s clear to all of us students that fossil fuel companies are literally trying to profit from the destruction of our future. The fact that they have the arrogance to come in here and try to recruit us into that mission is really deplorable.”
Recruitment isn’t the only way these universities are still giving Big Oil a lifeline — many schools continue to receive millions of dollars in funding from fossil fuel companies for, you guessed it, climate research. Jake Lowe and Connor Chung, students at George Washington University and Harvard University, respectively, and members of the Fossil Free Research campaign to end the industry’s influence over academics, wrote that such investments allow fossil fuel companies to “draw on universities’ hard-earned reputations to depict themselves as good-faith partners in the energy transition, all while distracting from the fact that no major oil company is even close to alignment with science-based emission-reduction standards.”
The oil industry’s funding, and in some cases, their role on the boards of climate and energy institutes also allows them to dictate what “solutions” to climate change — a problem caused by fossil fuels, from which they make their profits — are even considered. Accordingly, as Amy Westervelt and Dharna Noor examined during Season 7 of the podcast Drilled, the industry isn’t just pouring their money into climate research, but into public policy, economic, and legal education programs, too.
Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, last week turned down a speaking engagement at Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability, citing its acceptance of funding from Chevron, Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and other major fossil fuel companies. Dr. Oreskes will instead be speaking at a simultaneous student-led teach-in to discuss her work on the influence of fossil-fuel funding and climate disinformation on academic research.
“Stanford wants to solve a problem in partnership with the people who not only created it but continue to compound it,” Oreskes wrote in a recent article for Scientific American. Indeed, the so-called School of Sustainability is set to feature executives from ExxonMobil, Total, and Shell as speakers at its Global Energy Forum this year.
Last month, Princeton University took the first step towards cutting off Big Oil funding — not just divesting its endowment from 90 fossil fuel companies, but dissociating from them as well. Today, the school defines fossil fuel dissociation as “refraining, to the greatest extent possible, from any relationships that involve a financial component with a particular company,” including “no longer soliciting or accepting gifts or grants from a company, purchasing the company's products, or forming partnerships with the company that depend upon the exchange of money.”
Lynne Archibald, an alum of the university and member of Divest Princeton, says while it’s an important step forward, the school’s version of dissociation doesn’t go nearly far enough. Because Princeton’s bar for dissociation is in part determined by companies’ investment in thermal coal and tar sands oil, it will stop taking money from Exxon — but not from BP, which funds the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative.
But BP, and other companies that never made it to the list, is guilty of helping to spread climate disinformation to this day. BP is a target of the House Oversight committee’s investigation into the industry’s ongoing climate deception, and was named in a peer-reviewed study by PLOS One that found the company’s climate commitments amounted to greenwashing. While in May 2021, Princeton was planning dissociation from “fossil fuel companies that participate in climate disinformation campaigns or otherwise spread climate disinformation,” in September of 2022, it announced that the Board of Trustees “determined that the bar for dissociation on the basis of disinformation is exceedingly high, especially in the absence of quantitative standards and in light of the University’s commitment to embracing the vigorous exchange of ideas,” and that “the Board may in the future identify companies that meet this exceedingly high bar.”
Additionally, Princeton’s new rules don’t appear to prevent campus recruitment by companies that qualify for dissociation — despite public documents suggesting that the university was reevaluating recruitment as part of its dissociation plans up until recently. More than 50 fossil fuel companies have engaged with the university’s career development center through recruitment activities over the past 5 years.
The new definition also leaves room for partnerships that are not financial in nature.
“I don’t understand what it says, in a place that’s predicated on academic integrity, that you would continue to work with companies who have made it clear — for example, in the documents released in the congressional hearings — that they absolutely are not interested in the future,” Archibald said.
Ultimately, the trustee boards at universities — the ones making such decisions about the fate of relationships with the world’s largest polluters — may also be compromised by fossil fuel interests themselves. Take Harvard, for example, where Ted Wells Jr. — a lawyer defending Exxon from a climate liability lawsuit — is a trustee consulting with the university’s president over its ties to fossil fuels.
“They’re literally making it up as they go along,” said Archibald. Until the fundamental constitution of these universities changes, she said — and until Big Oil’s influence is finally, and really, eradicated — that will continue to be the case.
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