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Plea to WPI to Support Seniors Standing up for their Beliefs

April 30, 2011

What is accepting your college diploma at your college commencement worth? Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where I am a student, is forcing the class of 2011 to contemplate this question very seriously. WPI’s seniors are being indirectly denied their earned privilege to walk at their graduation. The reason: they are planning to walk out during the address of their commencement speaker, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil.

Those opposed believe that Rex Tillerson, who Rolling Stone calls “No. 6 Exec or Politician Blocking Action on Global Warming,” does not represent WPI’s values of environmental preservation and social equity – an opinion which I hold as well. Exxon is one of the biggest polluters in the world. If they were a country, only five others would produce more carbon emissions. Of more concern is the $16 million that Exxon funneled to “a network of ideological and advocacy organizations that manufacture uncertainty on global warming” between 1998 and 2005. I do not believe that WPI, as an academic institution, should be honoring the CEO of a company that actively aided the spread of misinformation on the most pressing scientific issue of our time.

Nevertheless, my intention here is not to vilify Rex Tillerson but to support these students who are standing with conviction. I admire all the work they have done – In addition to educating the WPI community about climate change through films, media and tabling, they were able to bring in Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-inResidence at the Post Carbon Institute as an alternate speaker. Initially, their plan was to leave the commencement ceremony during Tillerson’s address to attend a counterpoint address given by Mr. Heinberg. Following this alternative address, the students planned to return to their commencement ceremony to walk with their class and accept their diplomas. In a recent email to the graduating class, however, WPI stated that students who left the ceremony would not be allowed to reenter. I ask WPI to reconsider this decision.

The students are willing to work with WPI’s administration to find a solution that is mutually agreeable for both parties – they have emphasized that, by walking off, they do not want to disrupt the ceremony but instead wish to simply uphold their integrity. One idea presented suggested that a row of seats could be reserved in the very back of the ceremony for students who planned to walk out. Thus, the students sitting in this row could leave and return with minimal disturbance. Their names would be given to the registrar and they could be called last to receive their diplomas. Various administrators said they saw no logistical reason this would not work.

As a WPI student, I am disappointed by WPI’s failure heretofore to formulate a workable plan that would allow all to participate in the commencement ceremony. WPI is the place where I was first exposed to the world’s environmental challenges – it was the institution that inspired me to take an active role to help find solutions to the world’s environmental problems. As a student, I regularly hear about WPI’s sustainability initiatives such as our LEED certified buildings and state of the art recycling programs. Therefore, in many ways I feel betrayed by the way WPI has handled this situation. Not only was Rex Tillerson chosen as our commencement speaker, but the students who are speaking out against this decision are being punished. Shouldn’t WPI, as an institution that values the environment, be supportive of these students who are acting in accordance with their values of environmental sustainability? Shouldn’t students like these be the types of leaders that WPI is proud to present diplomas?

I understand that many faculty, students and staff have put a lot of work into planning this ceremony. I also am aware that they want it to be a memorable and celebratory event for all the deserving seniors that are graduating. However, there are solutions that can accomplish these goals and that still allow all students to walk on stage and receive their diplomas. Therefore, as an academic institution that prides itself on “environmental preservation, economic prosperity, and social equity for all members of society” and on developing some of tomorrow’s leaders in science and technology, I ask that the WPI administration accommodate these students so that they are able to walk with their class and uphold their integrity. This, I believe, is a privilege that these students most certainly have earned.

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