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The Pernicious Influence of Big Oil on America’s Universities

Stanford’s divestment debate shows how effective fossil fuel companies have been at colonizing academia.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As multiple crises converge—the global pandemic, racist state violence, and ever-growing economic and political inequality—the fossil fuel–driven climate catastrophe rumbles irreversibly forward. As in all times of crisis, the decisions taken now will sow either self-destruction or the possibility of renewal.

Dire times expand the palette of the possible, and perhaps this is one reason why a slew of elite and powerful establishment institutions—including the University of Oxford, Cornell University, and Brown University—have announced disinvestment from fossil fuel production, something unthinkable a decade ago. Even Harvard, that bastion of service to power, which famously kept Jeffrey Epstein’s money even as his criminal transgressions came to light, has announced a new, climate-informed investment policy, weak though its goal of a “greenhouse-gas neutral” endowment by 2050 may be. And on June 10 and 11, Stanford will decide the fate of its fossil fuel investments as well. A central factor delaying endowment divestment in the United States has been the quiet influence of the fossil fuel industry in America’s universities. At Stanford, where this is an especially large problem, it may yet prevent divestment from passing the university board’s upcoming vote.

While divestment campaigns often focus on ethics, removing investments from fossil fuel production isn’t just ethical: It’s necessary. In 2013, the International Energy Agency estimated that to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), global investments in fossil fuels would need to decline by $5 trillion by 2035 (about $200 billion per year, on average). In its latest Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also found that stopping climate destruction at that level would require fossil divestment of hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Peer-reviewed research in top scientific journals further shows that to meet that two-degree goal—now codified in the Paris climate agreement—new fossil fuel development should cease (because even current reserves cannot all be used), and no more fossil-fueled power plants can be built unless they are retired before the end of their economically useful life (rendering them unattractive investments). A recent analysis in the top scientific journal Nature Energy found that to create an investment trajectory consistent with the Paris climate agreement, investors should increase the proportion of their energy investments in clean energy systems over time: At least half such investments should be in clean energy by 2025 and 80 percent by 2035.

In other words: To avoid climate catastrophe, investors must move away from fossil fuels over time. Divestment isn’t an optional step: It’s a necessary condition, ideology aside. The question facing all investors—universities, pension funds, individuals, and others—is not whether to divest but rather how to do so and how quickly.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University—where I am currently a doctoral student studying law, history of science, and climate change—prides itself on a scientific and progressive outlook. So we might expect divestment, as a scientific necessity to avoid catastrophic and irreversible damage, to be an easy choice. Both undergraduate and graduate student governments, filled with young people whose futures are on the line, unanimously passed divestment resolutions in March. The university, too, has boasted of its efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption and in May announced plans for a new school focused on climate and sustainability.

But on May 28, when it came time for Stanford’s faculty senate to discuss divestment, faculty hesitated. When I went to watch the debate, I saw professor after professor at one of America’s richest universities first declare concern about climate change, then pivot to defend Big Oil, with many pointing to their receipt of industry funding. One professor suggested society needs oil to make hand sanitizer. To state the obvious: The vast majority of fossil fuels are not used for that purpose. When I marveled over the comment later to my adviser, science historian Robert Proctor, he said he recalled a similarly bizarre argument being made in the faculty senate in 2007 to justify continued acceptance of tobacco funding: One faculty member, according to Proctor, had said we needed the cigarette industry to make vaccines. Records of that debate also show professors’ fear that if the university rejected tobacco funding, people would start to question its receipt of oil money next.

“Funding from fossil fuels supports a lot of environmental and alternative energy research on campus,” geophysics professor Dustin Schroeder argued at the recent oil divestment meeting, as reported by The Stanford Daily. Yet fossil fuel spending on alternative energy research is comparatively minuscule: The industry spends 99 percent of its capital expenditures—over $100 billion per year—to explore for, develop, and acquire new fossil fuel reserves, despite the fact that current reserves are already more than enough to cause irreversible, catastrophic damage to life on Earth.

Another professor claimed that since society isn’t putting much effort into “walking the walk” to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, it would be hypocritical to reduce investments in them. This erroneously supposes, though, that two wrongs—not reducing consumption and not reducing investments—make a right. It also ignores the fact that many individuals, governments, and organizations, including Stanford, are trying to reduce fossil use. Anyone who can should be.

In addition to expressing concern about loss of industry funding, others, such as Paul Brest, professor emeritus and former dean of Stanford Law School, insisted divestment would have no effect on the industry anyway, ignoring the fact that multiple fossil fuel companies have admitted in shareholder reports that divestment is a material risk to them.

Throughout, a common theme was fear of retaliation from oil companies should Stanford divest. The dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, Stephen Graham (who also happens to be a former employee of both Exxon and Chevron), encouraged faculty to oppose the resolution, warning it would “undermine those partnerships” with the oil and gas industry “so successfully cultivated over the years,” resulting in a shift of funding “away from Stanford toward other institutions.” At the end of the meeting, Stanford’s faculty senate voted by over 70 percent to keep investing in fossil fuels.

The fossil fuel industry’s deep influence in academia has been pointed out before. The Harvard Kennedy School has received millions from Shell Oil Company (among other fossil fuel interests) and hosted events sponsored by the company. The University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute is funded by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel groups. And MIT’s Energy Initiative (branded as the Institute’s “hub for energy research, education, and outreach”) is funded almost entirely by fossil fuel companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. These are just a few examples. In 2010, the Center for American Progress analyzed 10 research collaborations between fossil fuel companies and U.S. universities, including Arizona State University, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, Iowa State University, and more. “In a majority of the 10 contracts,” the resulting report stated, “the university gave up majority control over the governing body in charge of the university-industry research alliance, and in four cases actually ceded full control to the participating corporations.”

Rarely, though, has the industry’s influence on individual professors’ thinking been displayed so explicitly as it was in the Stanford faculty debate.

Oil money runs deep at Stanford. The largest energy and climate research center on campus, the Global Climate & Energy Project, was co-founded by ExxonMobil and receives a majority of its funding from fossil fuel interests, who retain formal control over research portfolios. The university’s Precourt Institute for Energy is named after an oil and gas executive, and its Energy Modeling Forum is funded by the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Schlumberger, and other fossil groups. The list goes on. These industry-funded centers, in turn, hire, provide work space for, and fund the professors and graduate students responsible for helping the world transition away from fossil fuels. If that sounds like a conflict of interest, it is.

With decisive action, times of crisis—converging crises even more so—can be turning points. Institutions whose mission statements often explicitly cite the well-being of all of society as an ultimate goal face a moral test. Trustees making the decision should consider their legacy. Researchers receiving company money should recognize the conflict of interest. And the rest of us should examine the ties between our nation’s universities and the industry propelling the world to ruin.