Students at Prestigious Universities Rise Up Against Fossil Fuel Money

When a university sells naming rights to something it owns — a building, venue, department, or lecture hall, for instance — it’s largely selling two things: exposure, and the reputation of the institution itself. So, when MIT recently sold the naming rights of the lecture hall at the bottom of its Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) building, it was really selling, in part, the legitimacy and objectivity of the university.

It sold those honors to oil giant Shell.

MIT will use Shell’s $3 million donation to renovate the EAPS building, ironically also known as the Green Building after philanthropists Cecil and Ida Green. In exchange, the lecture hall, known previously as 54-100, is slated to be called the Shell Auditorium.

This renaming is part of the greenwashing practices in which oil and gas corporations have been engaging for decades, which are especially pernicious in higher education. Companies like Shell, Chevron, BP and Exxon have spent billions trying to convince not only the general public but also government officials and academics that they are good faith actors; that they can be objective about the climate; that they, too, can be a significant part of a clean energy future. In the past three years alone, according to InfluenceMap, five of the largest oil and gas companies have spent $1 billion on lobbying and climate-related branding.

Fossil fuel corporations have launched large, visible greenwashing efforts like lobbying Congress members and endless misleading advertising campaigns. And, increasingly, they’re pushing their greenwashing into ever-smaller corners of supposedly objective institutions like universities and the news media. Climate stories and newsletters from influential publications like The Washington Post, Politico, and Axios have been sponsored by the likes of Chevron and Exxon.

One lecture hall in one building at MIT may not seem like a big deal, but it is part of fossil fuel corporations’ much larger strategy to project relevancy and acceptance in not only the climate field but also the public sphere. Hundreds of STEM students, who might go on to study the climate or pioneer new technology, would attend lecture two or three times a week in the Shell auditorium. That adds up — however subconsciously.

“Probably the most obvious benefit” of the lecture hall renaming for fossil fuel companies “is old fashioned greenwashing, the halo effect,” says Geoffrey Supran, a science history researcher at Harvard. “Basically, Shell and other companies [are] drawing legitimacy by affiliation.” This way, Supran says, the companies “leech off the credibility and neutrality conferred by academia.”

In buying space in universities and the media, fossil fuel companies are buying social license — the ongoing tacit approval from the public to operate as they please. Shell actually directly addresses this on its website: one of its “strategic ambitions” is “to sustain a strong societal licence to operate and make a positive contribution to society through our activities.”

As more people begin to wake up to greenwashing, and with recent attention from campaigns like Exxon Knew, the oil and gas industry has been pushing back even harder against criticism, plastering advertising all over social media. Fossil fuel companies have touted their involvement and investments into renewable energy research at institutions like MIT and featured sustainability plans prominently on their websites.

“In reality, we know that the resources they’re putting into clean energy really pale in comparison to the budget that they continue to pour into exploration and development of new projects,” says Ortal Ullman, climate and energy campaign organizer for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Even just going to Shell’s Twitter feed — if you didn’t know any better, you would think that these companies are companies dedicated to finding climate solutions. And that’s the real danger.”

In October, Shell tweeted, “Protecting a forest in the Scottish Highlands offers a lifeline for an ancient ecosystem. It can also help tackle climate change,” accompanied by a link to an article about forest preservation on its website. The company continually tweets about its investments in renewable energy, and even co-opts climate communicators’ language on mitigating the climate crisis. “Immediate action and partnership across sectors is needed to accelerate technology and encourage public support for storing CO2 at scale,” the corporation tweeted in September, pushing carbon storage.

Even university researchers have been won over with greenwashing efforts, to an extent, according to Supran. Researchers, he says, especially those in the physical sciences who work strictly with data, will often assume that they’re immune to the bias of receiving industry grants. But “studies in social psychology and in the history of tobacco funding of health research tell us definitively that what these funding relationships do is to create so-called subconscious biases,” says Supran.

The fossil fuel industry, borrowing techniques from the tobacco industry from decades ago, knows about these biases. They exploit them by funding energy and climate research in a time when federal funding for science is shrinking, which actually makes getting a grant from oil and gas quite competitive. “Unbeknownst to most of us [researchers],” laments Supran, “we’re pawns in this public relations strategy.”

Many higher education institutions are so thoroughly entangled with these oil and gas corporations to the point where it’s near-impossible to extricate the two from each other. Fossil fuel executives sit on the boards of some of these institutions, as the late David Koch did at MIT. The companies sponsor entire energy research departments. People with deep industry ties hold faculty positions, Supran has observed. The extent of the funding from grants, donations and investments is never revealed by private institutions, but the outsized financial and personnel representation at all levels of these universities suggests that the universities would be substantially impaired without it.

Students and faculty, however, are fighting back against that notion. The renaming of 54-100 has sparked two community conversations about the influence of fossil fuels on MIT, which is unprecedented, says Deepa Rao, a Ph.D. candidate in the EAPS department.

In November, Rao and fellow Ph.D. candidate Mara Freilich moderated a teach-in to educate faculty, students and administrators on greenwashing. There, Rao and Freilich discovered that “even some of the people who have qualms about the donation were less informed about the deep political history of disinformation” associated with greenwashing than they’d thought, says Rao. The final decision on renaming, according to Freilich, comes down to the MIT Corporation, which is the governing board of trustees for the university. But department administrators told Freilich and Rao that they are discussing reversing the decision, likely in part due to the challenges raised by students and faculty.

Elsewhere, anti-fossil fuel students and faculty are also experiencing wins. The protest by Harvard and Yale divestment campaigns at the schools’ rivalry football game, for instance, garnered wide media attention. Faculty at Harvard have put forth a motion to vote on divestment next year after devoting a meeting to discussing the matter. Other universities, meanwhile, have been fully committing to divestment; notably, in September, the University of California system announced that it will cut fossil fuels from its $80 billion portfolio.

Undergraduate Caleb Schwartz, a representative of Harvard Divest, says that, besides the issue of divestment itself, the campaign has shifted conversations for the better around campus. “We really view divestment as a tactic and climate justice as our goal,” he says. When Harvard and Yale students arranged their football game protest, Schwartz says they originally had 150 protesters storm the field. But after seeing the protest, over 350 spectators from the stands joined them. “We realized that the movement is bigger than we thought,” he said.

A big movement is what these universities need to confront the sprawling presence of the fossil fuel industry in higher education, activists say. MIT’s renaming hardly even made mainstream national news, with small mentions in The Guardian and Politico; such greenwashing has become normalized. Hopefully, with the help of growing divestment campaigns and climate activist groups, that won’t be the case for long.