By Noah R. Bombard
When ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson takes the lectern at WPI commencement May 15, there will be several rows of empty chairs in the graduate section.
Following weeks of controversy over Tillerson’s selection as graduation speaker, the institution’s administration reached an agreement with students last week. Those objecting to a representative from a major oil corporation as speaker will be able to skip Tillerson’s address and file in afterwards. Those students have also invited their own speaker, Richard Heinberg, senior fellow-in-residence of the Post Carbon Institute, to speak later in the day to anyone who wants to attend.
Exactly how many students will opt out of the Tillerson address is unknown yet. They appear to be a minority. But the controversy and resulting resolution was an education itself for Linnea Palmer Paton a WPI senior and one of the leaders of the movement objecting to the choice of Tillerson. It all started with an e-mail and a nudge.
“I got an e-mail from a student who I knew through a religious club,” Palmer Paton says.
The announcement that Tillerson would be the speaker had just been made. Grumblings among some students who see companies like Exxon as contributors to global environmental issues began almost immediately.
“And he e-mailed me and said ‘I’m really upset about this. I don’t have time to do anything about this, but could you guys please do something?” Palmer Paton recalls.
“You guys” was a group called Students for a Just and Stable Future, which Palmer Paton is a member of. She says when she heard the Tillerson announcement she was disappointed, but it hadn’t really occurred to her to do something about it. It hadn’t occurred to her that she could. Suddenly, there was a moment of illumination.
“I didn’t’ really think to do something,” Palmer Paton recalls. “And then this person asking, I was like, of course I can.”
And then she did.
Students for a Just and Stable Future organized a meeting on campus. Sixteen students showed.
The objection wasn’t over anything Tillerson had done, Palmer Paton says. The institution’s board of trustees chose Tillerson, citing him as one of the most successful businessmen in the country and ExxonMobil as a major employer of WPI grads and a financial donor to the institution. The company recognizes the problem of climate change and says it’s actively working on solutions. Students objecting to Tillerson’s selection say the company’s policies tell a different story.
But standing up for something you feel strongly about can come at a cost. And for Palmer Paton and fellow objectors, it looked for awhile like that cost might be participating in graduation at all.
“I sent a letter to the administration saying that we were going to walk out,” Palmer Paton says. “I didn’t want to be disruptive, but I didn’t want Tillerson to send us his blessings for our future. So I sent the letter to the administration saying that we would walk out and they said any students who walked out were not going to be able to come back and receive their diplomas.”
Walk out of graduation and you’d receive your diploma in the mail. The administration cited logistics, Palmer Paton says. There are roughly 1,000 graduates and diplomas are in a specific order. Having a group of students walk out and then try to find their place again would be too disruptive.
“We decided that not getting our diplomas on stage was a small price to pay,” Palmer Paton says.
And it could have ended there. Or it could have heated up. There was certainly talk among some students of protests — coating themselves in fake oil to make a visual statement. But students were talking — and organizing. And they were organizing in the way just about every movement today starts: on Facebook.
“The first thing we did was start a secret Facebook group,” Palmer Paton says.
It was “secret” in the sense that the group could only be accessed if you were invited to join. The group came up with goals and one of their main goals was to educate the WPI community about ExxonMobil. Students contacted the media. Stories appeared in the Telegram & Gazette, Huffington Post and others. Meanwhile, a group of faculty at WPI had voiced their own concerns over the choice of Tillerson.
Through it all, Palmer Paton says, students negotiating with the school remained firm, but respectful. Last week, Palmer Paton and fellow senior Carmel Kozlov met with school officials and suggested a solution: Students wouldn’t get up and walk out; they’d just walk in late, receive their diplomas and hold their own speaker event after graduation. WPI agreed.
For Palmer Paton, it was one final – and very important – lesson at WPI.
“I think the most important thing is that being respectful but firm in negotiations can actually work very well … well, at least in this case,” she says. “A lot of activist things tend to really alienate other people and if you want to bring people in it’s important to consider them. Some group members were really excited about doing some sort of action with fake oil or something. [Senior Zakki Kauffman-Rogoff] really insisted that it was best for us to do this respectfully. It’s definitely a huge step for WPI to recognize us.”
The alternative graduation address will begin at 3 p.m. Palmer Payton says the group is still working on trying to line up other speakers as well. Everyone is invited to attend – even Rex Tillerson