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WPI students refuse ExxonMobil CEO – join their guest commencement speaker!

By Linnea Palmer Paton

It is frustrating to receive an education that allows you to think critically about the world, only to discover that the university [WPI] that gave it to you is avoiding critical thought, in the name of the status quo.

Climate change is a widespread, desperately urgent and crucial problem faced by humanity, and it is the absolute responsibility of the engineering and science community, especially its universities, to take the lead on addressing it.

So, naturally, when students and faculty at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) found out a month ago that Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, would be speaking at commencement, many of them were furious.

They saw ExxonMobil as a canon for all things old and unsustainable: destruction of the environment, and the exploitation of two finite resources¾both the oil and the atmosphere’s storage capacity for CO2 waste.

This seemed incompatible with a ceremony understood to be about leaders and moving ahead, rather than about barons of the past. As one graduating senior puts it, “Being well-wished into our careers by Rex Tillerson is an insult to our generation. His leadership at ExxonMobil continues to threaten the peace, security, and prosperity of our futures. He is not a good role model, and we will not accept him as the figurehead of our graduation.”

Adding to the trouble was ExxonMobil’s disinformation campaign aimed at the credibility of the scientific community. Shortly after the establishment of the Kyoto protocol in 1998, ExxonMobil launched a covert PR effort worth upwards of $16 million. A memo leaked from the company set the tactic: the think tanks hired by ExxonMobil would attempt to popularize the notion that scientists were undecided on global warming, in the hope of stalling further policy action [1].

So, immediately after the announcement, 22 WPI faculty members wrote a letter to WPI’s President, Dennis Berkey, calling for him to rescind Tillerson’s invitation. Over 250 students signed a petition opposing the choice and calling for more involvement in the speaker selection process. Then, students gathered around the WPI chapter of Students for Just and Stable Future (SJSF) to organize a campaign to educate the WPI community about social and environmental justice. Continue reading WPI students refuse ExxonMobil CEO – join their guest commencement speaker!