As college students around the country are wrapping up their semesters, graduating seniors at Worcester Polytechnical Institute (WPI) find themselves in the midst of an ethical controversy.
On Saturday, WPI’s commencement speaker is none other than oil baron Rex Tillerson, CEO and chairman of ExxonMobil, although perhaps you’re more familiar with his role as the national president of the Boy Scouts of America.
ExxonMobil has donated generously to WPI and has an executive on the school’s Board of Trustees. WPI students protesting their administration’s choice in commencement speaker question the social and environmental record of Rex Tillerson’s company, with emphasis on its “scientifically negligent response to global warming.” As ExxonMobil has spent over $25 million since 1998 on groups who deny the science or significance of global warming, I share their concerns.
In response the school’s choice, the WPI Students for a Just and Stable Future negotiated with the administration to host a counterpoint speaker, Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, who will be speaking at 3:00pm following the graduation ceremony. Heinberg is known for his analysis of peak production of fossil fuels, and the decline of easily-extractable, non-renewable energy sources.
Students have also organized a respectful protest of Tillerson’s speech. Twenty-six students are refusing to attend the commencement address, opting instead for Heinberg’s counterpoint speech. Other students who feel compelled to attend the speech will sport green ribbons to demonstrate solidarity with seniors who are abstaining from ending their schooling with an address from the mouth of Exxon.
ExxonMobil stands at the forefront of what is wrong with corporate America. The company is one of the top air polluters in the United States, with facilities that disproportionately affect minority communities. It is infamous for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska. It has a history of supporting brutal human rights violations in Indonesia. Through XTO Energy, ExxonMobil has already caused a major spill in the contaminating gas extraction practice known as hydrofracking.
While people and the planet bear the brunt of Exxon’s negligence, the company leverages its immense wealth and influence to buy the right to continue conducting dirty business as usual. In addition to funneling millions to industry front groups that peddle misinformation about climate science and belittle the significance of global warming, ExxonMobil spends tens of millions annually on federal political lobbying, and millions more on contributions to federal politicians to buy favorable policies. And even though Exxon made tens of billions of dollars in annual profit–Tillerson himself has made over $40,000,000 in the last five years–American taxpayers still handed out billions of dollars in subsidies to Exxon and other oil companies each year.
As Worcester Polytechnical Institute offers Mr. Tillerson an honorary degree for concluding the education of the graduates of 2011, someone should probably also offer Tillerson an honorary degree in corporate carelessness. He has certainly earned it.
Check out the full story, as told by WPI students, on their Facebook page. They invite all to attend Richard Heinberg’s speech tomorrow. Greenpeace applauds the students of Worcester Polytechnical Institute for standing up to ExxonMobil’s polluting influence.