I started writing this from the Denver airport, on the way to Colorado College, where I presented on colleges in the climate crisis. I noodled further at different points on the next trip, to the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where I addressed their Effordability Summit. These are my first stops on the Universities on Fire book tour – and reach out if you’d like to host me!
Speaking of climate change, I’d like to share a fascinating story about a growing problem at one university. I am not so much interested in the affair itself but more in how it potentially signals things to come. I’m still traveling, so this won’t be long.
The story concerns Harvard* law professor Jody Freeman, one of whose specialties is environmental law. From what I’ve seen she looks committed to addressing climate change. Yet at the same time she sits on (and is paid for sitting on) the board of ConocoPhillips, a major fossil fuel company, recently in the news for winning the Biden administration’s approval to expand operations in Alaska.
This board position has elicited conflict of interest charges on campus. To begin with, the Guardian article describes faculty criticizing what they see as a contradiction: “Colleagues say Freeman’s fossil fuel ties raises serious questions about a conflict of interest, while threatening to damage the university’s climate credentials.” A leaked email develops the point further:
[Harvard’s] Salata Institute asserts it ‘will not accept funds from, or partner with, any company that does not share the goal of moving our global economy away from fossil fuels,’ [so] we ask: why does this policy not exclude awarding funds to a board member of one of the world’s most intransigent fossil fuel merchants?
We ask not only about a potential conflict of interest, but also about the appearance of a conflict of interest, particularly one that might damage Harvard’s reputation and impair its efforts to be a leader in climate and sustainability work … might not intellectual partnership with a faculty member who has a fiduciary responsibility to a secondary interest, ConocoPhillips, with its mission to ‘explore for, develop and produce crude oil and natural gas globally,’ suggest a conflict of interest with these goals?
Approached by the Guardian, professor Freeman stood her ground:
I share the goal of moving the world to a low-carbon future as fast as possible and forcefully addressing the enormous challenges posed by climate change. There are many ways to make a difference, and activism is very important. I have chosen to engage in several ways, including by being an independent director on the board of ConocoPhillips to help advance the transition to a low-carbon economy, and think my involvement there remains positive.
At the same time, some students have fired off their own critique. From Divest Harvard’s open letter the main charge is uselessness and hypocrisy:
ConocoPhillips is not listening to sound environmental policy advice: ConocoPhillips is listening to the call of profit without regard for climate degradation. The time has come to choose between your Harvard leadership responsibilities and your loyalties to the fossil fuel industry…
Professor Freeman, until now, you have justified your position as helping reform ConocoPhillips from the inside. The Willow Project makes clear that this isn’t working.
The students add greenwashing to their charges:
At a certain point, it is important to ask yourself whether you are being used — if ConocoPhillips isn’t paying for your expertise, but instead co-opting the respect and legitimacy accorded to someone of your position.
There is also an eye-watering point about board compensation, which, if true – wow.
To be clear, I am not writing about this developing story in order to judge Freeman’s actions. I don’t have enough knowledge to go on beyond what I’ve shared and linked above. Instead, I want to consider the controversy as a sample of emerging academic climate politics.
To begin with, there are some significant and direct connections between fossil fuel companies and academia. Some companies and their representatives (for example, the Koch brothers) fund faculty positions, programs, and research to various degrees of transparency. We recently saw some impressive documentation on this point. In addition, we may see some parts of higher education contributing to global warming by encouraging students to work for such companies, as those with petroleum engineering degrees often do. Further, and this is especially germane for Harvard, the few colleges and universities which maintain large endowments sometimes invest funds in companies like ConocoPhillips (hence divestment campaigns).
These connection may increasingly drive institutional political struggles, as more academics become more conscious and active on climate issues, as the crisis worsens in the world, and as general interest rises. Think, for example, how a much more climate-active student body like the University of Barcelona’s would respond to learning about professor Freeman’s paid board gig.
Now, such struggles might not happen in all cases. The relevant information might not get out. Or it might appear, yet not get traction.
The second and more important form this could take it when some academics (faculty, also staff and students) determine than one or more other academics are knowingly contributing to the climate crisis. Such contributions might appear in a variety of ways: a professor taking money from oil companies, as above, but also one whose research discourages climate action, at least in the accusers’ view, such as that conducted by a petroleum engineering professor. It might be an administrator who flies a great deal, when they could have taken trains and/or done virtual meetings instead. It might be a cafeteria manager or the leaders of a frat house which serve a lot of beef, hence contributes to global warming through both methane and carbon dioxide emissions. More simply, some academics could charge others with outright climate denial.
These challenges may be contestable, as they are based on interpretation, politics, and to some extent forecasting. Additionally, as the crisis worsens over the years and decades ahead, other climate positions might become susceptible to critique, like an administrator seen as not pressing strongly enough for climate action, or a faculty member deemed as not having enough climate content in their curriculum.
I’ve been speaking of individuals, as is the case with the Harvard professor, but these forms of criticism can readily scale up to units: departments, programs, divisions, entire institutions.
Now, these are all internal possibilities, when members of the academic community critique each other. Obviously academics can become objects of non-academic climate ire. Climategate, where conservatives charged faculty with lying in order to spur climate action, offers one model, but we should also anticipate the reverse, when off-campus climate activists critique faculty, staff, or even students for expressions and actions which exacerbate global warming. For example, I found the students’ open letter on a conservative website.
Looking ahead, as the climate crisis ratchets up and academics gradually become more active in it, we should expect more stories like this.
*Note: I do not consider Harvard to be an exemplary academic institution, given its extraordinary wealth and reputation. Yet its leadership role in academia, especially in the United States, is strong, and stories like this one might influence political conflicts in other universities. Harvard reliably attracts outsized attention from the rest of academia and from the media. Perhaps this story is an early sign of things to come.