We Dissent — Letter from WPI Faculty

April 8, 2011

Dear President Berkey,

As members of the WPI faculty concerned with the moral and social standing of WPI and the condition of the global environment,we feel a special responsibility to respond publicly to WPI’s recent announcement that it has invited Rex Tillerson, President and CEO of the Exxon Mobil Corporation, to be this year’s Commencement speaker for the Class of  2011.  We do not believe this selection is appropriate for a university that prides itself on its concern for environmental sustainability.

According to the WPI mission statement, our goals include “form[ing] a deep appreciation of the interrelationships among basic knowledge, technological advance, and human need.”  Knowledge, that same statement reads, “is won not only for its own sake but also for the sake of the human community.”  We would ask, in what possible sense does the Exxon Mobil  Corporation represent the pursuit of knowledge for “human need” and “community”?

Besides being the largest publicly traded company in the world, Exxon Mobil is also one of greatest polluters on the face of the earth, the source of more carbon emissions than all but five of the largest nations in the world.

While the vast majority of scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and that it poses a possibly catastrophic threat to the flora and fauna of the earth (including to our own species), Exxon Mobil has for years funneled tens of millions of dollars to political lobbyists and think-tanks to sow confusion among members of the public concerning the science of climate change.  Their strategy has worked:  despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that urgent action is needed right now to mitigate the future impacts of global warming, almost half of Americans are now climate change skeptics.  This has enabled oil companies like Exxon Mobil to continue reaping record-breaking profits, even as they have thwarted the creation of sane new energy policies.

While Rex Tillerson has professed a concern about climate change, there is so far no evidence that the corporation’s policies have changed at all since his ascension to the position of CEO (from President) in 2006.  Exxon Mobil continues to show itself to be indifferent to the ecological order and public health alike.  In 2009, the company was hit with a $105 million fine for knowingly polluting groundwater in New York. According to Reuters, “A federal jury in New York City ruled that ExxonMobil Corp. had polluted the city’s groundwater and ordered the oil giant to pay $105 million in damages….The city contended Exxon knew that gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether would contaminate groundwater if it leaked from the underground storage tanks at its retail stations. Exxon ignored warnings from its own scientists and engineers not to use MTBE in areas of the country that relied on groundwater for drinking water, the city said.”  Here in Massachusetts, in April 2010 the State ordered the company to pay $2.9 million for having “violated the state’s air pollution laws at its bulk gasoline terminals in Everett and Springfield.”  In 2009, just a year earlier, the US Attorney General announced a $6 million fine against Exxon Mobil for spilling 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel oil into the Mystic River.  But the company has engaged in similar behaviors and suffered similar fines throughout the world.  In April of last year, for example, the company agreed to pay fines for serious air pollution violations in Guam and the Marianas Islands, and so on. Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, residents of Alaska are still waiting to receive the punitive damages the company owes them (by court order).

In recent years, WPI has engaged in laudable efforts to assess its ecological sustainability and resource use, with your own personal encouragement and leadership as President of the Institute.  It is precisely because we admire and applaud these efforts that we find the choice of Rex Tillerson as this year’s Commencement speaker to be so deeply puzzling. We believe that having the CEO of Exxon Mobil address our graduating students will only damage the reputation of our institution, by identifying us nationally with an archaic model of energy that is quite literally destroying the world.

The world is full of courageous individuals whose work is a boon to humankind, men and women of extraordinary talent and vision who every day show us what it means to take real risks, invent something to better society, to heal a hurting world.  Surely, as a distinguished university with a Mission Statement that defines our work as “academic inquiry for the betterment of society,” WPI deserves one of these individuals to come speak to our graduating students.  But the CEO of Exxon Mobil is not one of them.

We urge you to rescind this invitation and to turn instead to the recommendations put forward by this year’s Commencement Committee.  WPI deserves a speaker who has demonstrated an outstanding record of good citizenship and an abiding concern for the welfare of the planet.

Sincerely,

Prof. Bland Addison, History, Humanities and Arts
Prof. María Cevallos Warren, Spanish, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Joel J. Brattin, Literature, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Ulrike Brisson, German, Humanities and Arts                                                                
Prof. Constance Clark, History, Humanities and Arts.
Prof. David Dollenmayer, German, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Roger Gottlieb, Philosophy, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Margarita Halpine, Spanish, Humanities and Arts
Prof. James Hanlan, History, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Rob Krueger, Geography, Interdisciplinary and Global Studies, and Director of the Environmental Studies Program
Prof. Wes Mott, Literature, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Svetlana Nikitina, Literature, Coordinator of Interdisciplinary First Year Humanities, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Angel Rivera, Spanish and International Studies, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Josh Rosenstock, Art, Humanities and Arts
Prof. M. David Samson, Art History, Humanities and Arts
Prof. John Sanbonmatsu, Philosophy, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Ruth Smith, Religion, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Susan Vick, Drama/Theatre, Director of Theatre, Humanities and Arts
Prof. Stephen Weininger, Chemistry and Biochemistry (Emeritus)
Prof. Van Bluemel, Department of Physics (Emeritus)
Prof. Seth Tuler, Department of Interdisciplinary & Global Studies Division
Prof. Stephen J. Bitar, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

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