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Should Columbia cut all ties with fossil fuel companies?

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It was programmed as a shamelessly button-down event, a presentation by Spencer Dale, a former Bank of England economist directed at an audience of graduate students interested in global energy market trends. Then the undergraduates stood up and started talking about the weather.

“BP profits from climate change and human rights violations. BP has blood on its hands. Do you trust them with our future?”  The young woman, a member of student group Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ), stood center stage, with the guest speaker behind a podium a few feet to her right. She was later joined by several other students with paper signs.

A visibly exasperated Jason Bordoff, once a senior advisor to the Obama Administration on climate policy, now Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), host of the day’s event, led an unsuccessful counter protest.

“Can we hear from the speaker and then we can ask him questions, please?”

Dale, Chief Economist for BP, for his part, did not directly acknowledge the protesters, but he did devote the last section of his presentation to the issue of climate change. “There is no silver bullet,” Dale said, pointing to a table of alternative energy resources, before eventually endorsing a carbon tax.

The student protests represented a jarring intervention into the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), which encompasses CGEP. The action also represented a relatively new theatre in CDCJ’s campaign for climate justice, which has been primarily focused on divestment. The student group has called for Columbia University to divest its $8 billion dollar endowment from the fossil fuel industry, or, more specifically, from the “top 200” fossil fuel companies. Last November, the university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) rejected the CDCJ proposal. At the time of this article’s publication, a handful of CDCJ activists are engaged sit-in to protest the school’s inaction, which recently earned a message of support from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and considerable media coverage.

But the debate over Columbia’s investment strategy overshadows a separate discussion, one raised by the BP protest. The fossil fuel divestment movement has largely focused on decisions by academic institutions about where to put their endowment money – but what happens when fossil fuel companies decide to support those same institutions?

“The Center on Global Energy Policy takes dirty money from companies like BP and Exxon,” read the CDCJ press release that accompanied the protest.

First, some background. Last November, ExxonMobil publicly admonished Columbia University over investigations conducted by Columbia journalists and the Los Angeles Times, which suggested the oil giant may have buried early knowledge of the climate threat. Kenneth Cohen, an Exxon Vice President for Government and Public Affairs accused the journalists of “cherrypick[ing]” and “distorting” information in a letter obtained by POLITICO, a news website. 

“ExxonMobil has had numerous and productive relationships with Columbia University for many years, whether through research programs, interactions with the business school or recruiting of graduates for employment with our company,” Cohen added. “The interactions [between Exxon and the Columbia journalists] detailed above are not typical of the high standards and ethical behavior we have come to expect from your institution.”

Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, responded in kind with a six-page rebuttal of Cohen’s allegations.

POLITICO report ended by noting the extent of the oil giant’s commitment to a productive relationship with Columbia: $219,229 to the university as part of a matching gift program for alumni working at Exxon, $9,000 in direct grants, and an additional $25,000 to CGEP. The greening of Exxon’s relationship with Columbia caught the eye of a number of activist environmental groups in New York, because these numbers had not been previously publicized.

“I, and CDCJ as a group, reject the mainstream argument, which says that the need for good research requires money, and as long as the money doesn’t skew the research receiving the money is morally justified,” said Stav Gilutz, a CDCJ member and SIPA student, when asked Columbia’s acceptance of fossil fuel funding. “[B]y taking money from such corporations Columbia grants them with a social license to operate and make profit off of their destructive business.”

Professor Travis Bradford, Director of the Energy and Environment Concentration at SIPA and founder of a sustainable development non-profit, took a different view than Gilutz. “For the university as a whole to suggest that we’re not going to take any kind of money from a legal business? I think that that is a very slippery slope.”

Bradford added that the school did have rules prohibiting the acceptance of funds from corrupt governments or money made through illegal activity (CDCJ, for the record, allege that BP has been involved in criminal activity). Students at an institution like SIPA, Bradford suggested, should be provided with good information and be allowed to come to their own conclusions about what to do with it, or which industries were morally tolerable.

If anything, Bradford argues, hearing all voices – including, presumably, those like Spencer Dale’s – can make even better advocates of SIPA students. “They’re going to be able to defend [their] choices with much stronger analysis and better arguments. I think at an academic institution, we should be encouraging these types of debates not discouraging them.”

Bradford added: “Now, what they’re not going to do is come out of the program with false information about whether climate change is actually happening or not.”   

Gilutz argued that close ties with private industry pose deeper problems for SIPA beyond the climate issue, by virtue of its identity as a school of public affairs. “Corporations are supposed to inform policy and not form policy.” She added: “They are not democratic institutions.”

The debate over how Columbia should relate to the fossil fuel industry is hardly lost on the students themselves. Following the BP protest, a prolonged discussion broke out on the Facebook page for the SIPA Energy Association, a student group for students interested in energy-related careers.

“Our tools as SIPA and energy experts is policy [sic], governance and administration not placards and sticks,” one student wrote. “PS: I don’t work for an oil company.”

Correction: The Exxon Vice President for Government and Public Affairs quoted in Politico was Kenneth Cohen, not Stephen Cohen. A clarification has also been added regarding the matching gift program.

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