CAMBRIDGE — On Wednesday, around 30 members of the Harvard and MIT communities disrupted a recruiting event by ExxonMobil. The presentation, which was held in the offices of the MIT Earth and Planetary Sciences department and advertised to Harvard science students, was intended to convince students to participate in the company’s hiring process. Students at the event, however, sent a message loud and clear: So long as Exxon is undermining young people’s futures, it won’t be welcome on campus.
The disruption — and a similar one, also this week at Brown — come in the wake of Exxon’s track record of exploiting vulnerable peoples and environments for its oil and gas development, while lying to the public about its ostensible pivot to greener initiatives. A recent peer-reviewed study found that Exxon has devoted just 0.22% of its capital expenditures to clean energy in recent years, and subpoenaed corporate emails released last month revealed efforts by top corporate executives to undercut the international Paris Agreement. Numerous independent analyses have found no evidence to support Exxon’s claims of net-zero alignment.
“The fossil fuel industry is lying to young people,” said Marisa Borreggine, a PhD candidate at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. “As an Earth scientist, I’ve seen firsthand how Exxon is fighting against decarbonization and climate action. I think it’s shameful for our universities to embrace a company that will use our talents in service of a deadly business model.”
“Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes,” said a senior ExxonMobil official in caught-on-camera remarks in 2021. “Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early [climate regulation] efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that.” Some of Exxon’s recent efforts to undermine academia have even included attacks on Harvard and MIT scholars
Campus recruitment is just one strand in the intricate web in which Exxon and the oil industry at large are entangled with universities. In recent months, student activists have called attention to the ways in which funding from these companies for academic research on climate change can create immense conflicts of interest and threaten academic freedom. A Harvard trustee, Ted Wells, is one of Exxon’s top lawyers. A 2021 report found that Harvard’s climate policy research is awash in oil money — and that the university chronically underenforces its own conflict-of-interest policies when it comes to such funding. And a 2021 legal filing by MIT Divest noted that a number of the university’s senior leadership collect paychecks from fossil fuel companies, contributing to likely violations of state fiduciary duty laws.
“Universities are supposed to prepare young people for the future, not prop them to work for big oil companies like Exxon Mobil, whose actions have poisoned our communities. Communities of color are continuously dying due to pollution and our collective future is at stake,” said Harvard graduate student Alexia Leclercq, an interdisciplinary climate researcher and organizer with the grassroots environmental justice organization PODER.
The protest comes on the heels of a number of recent student-led blows to Big Oil. On September 28, Birkbeck, University of London became the first institution to ban oil and gas companies from campus recruitment events after advocacy from the UK-based Fossil Free Careers movement. Momentum is also surging around the Fossil Free Research movement, which advocates for universities to ban oil and gas funding for climate-related academic research. Currently, faculty at both the University of Cambridge and the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health are expected to vote on a fossil fuel funding ban in the coming months. Just last month, the movement made historic headway when Princeton university announced it would divest from and refuse direct financial relationships with 90 oil and gas companies (including ExxonMobil, with which it had a long-standing research partnership.) Students are optimistic this move will pave the way for peer institutions to follow suit, recognizing the need to cut all ties with the companies driving climate breakdown.
“The threat that Exxon poses to our universities — and the planet — may be profound,” said Nathan Shwatal, a junior in MIT’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Department. “But we’ve seen that as students, we absolutely have the power to change the world for the better.”
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard is the movement that successfully won the university’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels. To learn more, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Harvard students, want to get involved in our student campaign? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Are you an alum? Check out DivestHarvardAlumni.com
MIT Divest is a student movement urging MIT to divest from fossil fuel companies engaged in disinformation and anti-climate lobbying. The organization recently filed a historic complaint asserting that MIT’s fossil fuel exposure isn’t just immoral, but illegal. Members of the community can sign the petition, and get more involved, at MIT-Divest.com