There's a storm brewing on the small campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute over the kind of vision for the future to be imparted to graduating students at this year's commencement. Offering one vision is Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil--the largest private oil company in the world and a major funder of climate deniers. Offering the other is Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute. The two visions couldn't be further apart, nor the stakes higher.
According to students at WPI, ExxonMobil has given at least $1.3 million to the school. The decision to invite Tillerson was taken without consulting the community and kept a secret for over two years. The administration has also opposed efforts to find out the exact nature of the decision making process that led to the invitation.
Given ExxonMobil's track record, the decision to invite Tillerson didn't sit well with a number of students and faculty. WPI Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) took up the cause, protesting Tillerson's invitation, but to no avail. So students took matters into their own hands.
Last week, SJSF invited Richard Heinberg to deliver an alternate commencement address on campus and at the same time as Tillerson.
Richard Heinberg's work is a powerful symbol of our wishes for WPI: a university which, in line with its budding green image, chooses to honor someone with leadership and vision, rather than a baron of the past, a force of the status quo.
The protest organizers have made every effort to negotiate with the administration and ensure that the graduation ceremony is not unduly disrupted. Last week, the WPI administration approved their plans begrudgingly. But everything changed yesterday. The President's office informed SJSF that any students who leave the ceremony to listen to Richard Heinberg will not be allowed to return to receive their diplomas. SJSF believes the administration does not have the legal authority and has contacted the ACLU and other legal help to fight this tactic.
Point of clarification: Some people have expressed confusion about the diploma situation. Students have NOT been told they will not graduate if they walk out, but that they can't return to the ceremony and receive their diplomas at that time.