“Green” Universities Keep Taking Sweet, Sweet Oil Money

Despite their supposed focus on sustainability, there seems to be an awful lot of fossil fuel and ‘big oil’ money creeping into university’s “green” programs. The main example they give is Stanford’s new Doerr School of Sustainability, but it’s far from the only place where these problematic conflicts of interest pop up in academia.

Their main example at Stanford is particularly interesting given two things. The first is that the school — which, notably, has NOT joined other universities in divesting from fossil fuels — has been under a lot of pressure to reject money from fossil fuel companies. While the money may legally come with no strings attached, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds, so activists, student groups, and others have been telling Stanford that they need to not take any money from oil companies. But, on day one, the new school’s dean announced that they will accept that money despite the pressure, which included a letter signed by hundreds of alumni, researchers, and others at Stanford.

The other thing that makes this so interesting is just how much money the school already received from a more neutral source. John and Ann Doerr gave the university $1.1 billion dollars, which is the second biggest private gift to academia, ever. It’s the biggest one ever made that was devoted to climate action and research. But, that apparently isn’t enough money for a sustainability school, it seems.

Other schools have had similar problems. Harvard and George Washington University are both embroiled in controversy over the money coming in from fossil fuel companies to sustainability schools, and investigations are under way to determine how much has come in from them, in what forms, and how it affects the schools’ academic honesty.

When it comes to Stanford, the report goes deep into the other conflicts of interest both Stanford and the new sustainability school’s dean have with the fossil fuel industry. As before, the school refuses to divest from fossil fuel stocks, fearing that donations from them would dry up. They also have many other funding and research-related ties that keep the school from taking a completely objective look at climate change and the activities of oil companies, and it looks a lot like the university may be just serving as a sustainability rubber stamp for oil majors to make themselves look more sustainable and environmentally friendly than they really are.

The obvious problem here is that oil companies still have a lot of money and power, and they use that money and power to secure their future money and power. When they can get into sustainability schools and have any influence on research priorities, they can prolong their company’s survival at the expense of the mission these schools are supposed to be undertaking.

The obvious thing to do here is get these schools to stop taking fossil fuel money, but if that’s not going to happen, we probably need to be sure that the public becomes aware that academia isn’t as trustworthy as they’d like us to think when it comes to these issues. Ultimately, the truth prevails, even if it costs society big first. Once the truth becomes overwhelmingly apparent, it’s hard to not look like you’re completely untrustworthy if you were obviously downplaying or burying the truth.

So, ultimately, it is Stanford’s reputation that will be hurt here if they don’t get their house in order.

Featured image: Stanford University’s oval. Image by King of Hearts, CC-BY-SA 3.0


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