WPI Students Protest ExxonMobil Speaker at Graduation

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After four grueling years of late nights studying and more Ramen noodles than any one person should ever consume, most students don’t find themselves protesting their own graduation. Yet on Saturday, a group of graduates from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) did just that as a row of seats towards the back were left empty for them. No, they weren’t protesting the abhorrent prices of graduation gowns they would never wear again or the absence of top-shelf champagne at the ceremony: they were protesting its speaker.

As soon as WPI announced Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, would be this year’s graduation speaker, many students suddenly were “left confused, even betrayed,” graduating senior Katrina Crocker told DeSmogBlog. It didn’t make sense that WPI, a school recognized as one of the greenest universities in the nation, would invite the CEO of one of the largest dirty energy companies on the planet to address the class of 2011. In contrast to WPI’s green priorities, ExxonMobil reaps billions in dirty energy profits while polluting the environment and contributing to global climate change, all while simultaneously funding front groups to attack climate scientists and confuse the public.

Since 2005, ExxonMobil has dished out over $100 million lobbying Congress to delay EPA action to rein in the pollution that is the chief driver of climate disruption.  ExxonMobil has spent $4 million over the same period filling the campaign coffers of Washington leaders. Deniers such as Patrick Michaels, Fred Singer, and Richard Lindzen had received funding from ExxonMobil in order to attempt to obstruct progress on climate change in the US by either denying that the problem exists or lobbying against government action needed to rein in the continual purge of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Perhaps the reason the WPI administration chose Tillerson stemmed from the fact that ExxonMobil has reportedly given $1.3 million to the school, according to some students’ research.  “The decision certainly doesn’t reflect the school’s mission statement and goals, which explicitly state how education should  ‘strive for excellence coupled with an examination of the contexts of learning so that knowledge is won not only for its own sake but also for the sake of the human community,’” Crocker told me.

That’s when one campus group, Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF), a group committed to finding solutions to climate change, stepped up and decided to engage the WPI community to find a way to take back their graduation ceremony. At their initial meeting, over 30 people from varying backgrounds and interests showed up to brainstorm ideas. “Students who had never been inclined to speak up about anything, political or otherwise, felt compelled to stand up on this issue,” said Guillaume Marceau, one of the members of SJSF.

“We really made an effort to reach out respectfully to the others and create opportunities for in depth discussion.”

At first students decided they would protest by walking out during Tillerson’s speech and additionally invited Dr. Richard Heinberg, a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, to give an alternative speech. Momentum seemed to build up when several of the local newspapers picked up the story. The students agreed that they didn’t want to disrupt the ceremony for other graduates, but did not condone anything ExxonMobil stands for and wanted to provide a counterpoint for people to listen to that was based on science on not on political or financial agenda.

But the plan hit a snag when the school administration responded by announcing that anyone who left the graduation ceremony in protest would be locked out and not allowed to receive their diplomas on stage with their classmates. Apparently even 4 years of tuition won’t buy you first amendment rights to free speech and protesting.

Naturally when someone’s free speech rights are infringed upon, the media has a knack for sniffing it out. After the administration declared its intention to lock out the dissenting students, a larger, second wave of media hits, this time reaching out farther than just the local papers and even included a signed letter from the faculty. Community members, and even many WPI alumni caught wind of the story and decided to voice their opinion to the administration. After the vocal outpouring and threat of rescinding alumni donations, the administration decided it was willing to negotiate an agreement with the students.

As per the compromise that was reached, during Saturday’s commencement, eight students were allowed to walk in late to the ceremony, after Rex Tillerson spouted off his ironic pearls of wisdom, that included encouraging graduates to maintain “a firm ethical foundation of personal and professional integrity” in their lives.

The Telegram reports that Tillerson said, “Integrity is a commitment to do the right things the right way every time, whether or not someone is looking… enjoy the world around you.”

Hopefully he also told those students to enjoy it quickly because if ExxonMobil gets its way, the EPA’s mandate to protect the public from harmful greenhouse gas pollution would be eviscerated and the public would collectively be shoved down the path to runaway climate change.

Originally the WPI administration had cited “logistical issues” as the reason that the protesting students couldn’t walk out and come back into the ceremony. But at Saturday’s festivities, student activists noticed graduates continually getting up to leave for breaks of various kinds, causing them to wonder if the administration really was worried about “disruptions” during the ceremony of if they just wanted to squelch the students’ protests.

“It had become quite apparent that this was not true,” said Linnaea Palmer Paton of SJSF. “Not only did a graduation organizer say in our meetings with the administration that this could be arranged without being disruptive, at graduation many graduates were constantly walking in and out to go to the bathroom, get food, and talk to people. Clearly, not being able to cross the stage and get diplomas if we had walked out was a punishment for speaking out, not a matter of logistics.”

While the concerned students went out of their way to extend an olive branch, why couldn’t the administration do the same? The students attempted to negotiate and compromise in order to minimize disruption out of respect for the other attendees, while bureaucratic politics continued to stomp all over students’ rights to exercise the green ethic instilled in them by the very same institution. Why should they have been punished for that?

After the ceremony, over a hundred people attended Richard Heinberg’s speech. Crocker said of the speech, “It was exactly what I hoped for and more. It was educational, inspiring, and rightly drew attention to ExxonMobil’s global warming disinformation efforts.”

Dr. Heinberg also drew attention to the fact that students, just like the ones of SJSF, have been mobilizing all over the country, and it’s efforts like these that keep the energy alive for climate activists worldwide.

“In my darker moments, I fear that we have already waited too long and that it is already too late. I hope I’m not right about that, and when I talk to young people like you, I tend to feel that we can make this great transition, and that actions that have seemed politically impossible for the past forty years will become inevitable as circumstances change, and as new hearts and minds come to the table,” Heinberg said.

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