Stanford community critiques Sustainability School’s acceptance of fossil fuel funds, expresses optimism for opening

May 30, 2022, 11:21 p.m.

The debate over Stanford’s relationship with fossil fuel companies has reached a fever pitch across campus. Intensifying calls for Stanford to establish a bright-line stance, divest from these companies and refuse their donations have dampened a historic moment at the University: the launch of a new School of Sustainability funded by a record $1.1 billion donation from philanthropists John and Ann Doerr.

In interviews following the announcement, administrators, including incoming dean Arun Majumdar, have stood firm on two stances over which they have faced criticism: the school will work with and accept donations from fossil fuel companies and will not engage in political advocacy.

The new school, which is set to launch on Sept. 1, aims to accelerate solutions to the global climate crisis. The school will have a distinctive three-part structure that brings about 90 existing faculty to the its academic departments, bridges areas of scholarship through interdisciplinary institutes and establishes an accelerator to drive policy and technology solutions. 

The school will also be willing to work with and accept donations from fossil fuel companies, according to Majumdar, who has consistently emphasized that industry collaboration is necessary to solve the climate crisis. The decision is in line with the University’s continued refusal to divest from fossil fuels, despite growing criticism from some students and faculty.

Most recently, the Board of Trustees rejected a resolution to divest from publicly-traded oil and natural gas companies in June 2020, while an increasing number of peer institutions, such as Harvard, have committed to divestment. The campus group Fossil Free Stanford (FFS) also joined with the Climate Defense Project (CDP) to file a legal complaint against Stanford, contending that, by refusing to divest, the University is shirking its duty as a public charitable corporation to promote the public interest.

“Given all the evidence we have of climate change, and how it affects marginalized communities, communities of color, less developed countries, you can’t really support accepting donations from fossil fuel companies,” said FFS advocate Isabel Sofia Vilá Ortiz ’25.

Still, the school’s launch has earned praise from some who see the sustainability school as a step in the right direction, albeit with room for improvement.

Benjamin Franta, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of science, commended the school for not relying on oil funding in its initial $1.1 billion investment. As a researcher and director of accountability research for the Climate Social Science Network, Franta studies the history of fossil fuel companies and climate change politics. He stressed that the school’s initial funding represents a positive shift from the status quo – many of Stanford’s energy and climate centers have historically relied on fossil fuel funds – and said that this school offers Stanford the opportunity to dilute its dependence on such funding.

“It sort of proves that you don’t need fossil fuel money to do climate-related research,” Franta said. “There is enough money out there.”

Fourth-year Ph.D. student in Earth Systems Science Marius von Essen echoed Franta’s sentiments, adding that continuing to accept fossil fuel donations could incur significant reputational damage on the school.

“I’m talking [about] future talent going to that school,” Essen said. “Stanford has a stellar reputation so there’ll be people coming to Stanford regardless. But I think there’s also a new generation of scholars and students entering the workforce that is more critical around these things.”

But Majumdar has continued to stand by the school’s funding plans. The new dean believes that solutions to sustainability challenges are lengthy and require collaborative efforts across academic, government and industry fields. “In the future of sustainability, no single institution can do it,” he told The Daily. “It’s all about partnerships.”

He added that the process of decarbonization is a “humongous” transition that “doesn’t happen automatically,” and that partnerships with fossil fuel companies remain a subject of debate among faculty. The school will aim to work with oil and gas companies that share its goal of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and decarbonizing the economy, “not just in words, but in action,” he said. “You need coalition[s] to address the issues of who’s representing certain communities.”

Behind the scenes, Majumdar has been working to set a tone of trust and inclusion among sustainability school faculty members. In an email to the Earth Systems Department, Majumdar wrote that he does not believe the school should work with companies that deny climate change, undermine government policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions or misuse their partnership with the school’s sustainability mission. He noted that some companies may still need to produce oil or gas to avoid “significant disruptions to human welfare,” but that the school will remain “vigilant that their values align with ours.”

“Companies committed to fighting climate change that have transnational scale, industrial know-how and financial resources should be welcome allies in this fight,” Majumdar wrote in the email. “They can enable innovations and breakthroughs in academia, which are invariably at the laboratory-scale, to be rapidly scaled up for global impact.”

If the school follows through with its plans, much will be at stake, including upholding transparency in academic research. The University has several safeguards in place to maintain transparency and academic independence, according to Majumdar. Per the University’s academic agreement, faculty will direct research independently and disclose all funding in published results, Majumdar said. 

Still, Ortiz emphasized the need for transparency in the new school’s donations, saying that a lack of transparency could lead others to believe that the University’s decisions are unethical. Stanford community members and people across the world “should have access to the information of where these funds come from,” she said, because without it, “it’s hard to really know the magnitude of these donations and how they affect research.”

To maintain the school’s independence, Majumdar also said that the school will abstain from political advocacy. According to Majumdar, the best way to ensure long-term viability and maximum impact from the school is to offer information and resources to researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders while avoiding direct advocacy. 

For fourth-year Ph.D. student in material science and engineering Rachel Huang, the school’s mission to provide crucial information to policymakers presents a much-needed opportunity for impact. “It’s very good that there’s more towards the policymaking side also incorporated into [the school],” Huang said.

But others see the school’s unwillingness to engage in political advocacy as out of touch with real-world consequences.

“I think the narrative that this is somehow an apolitical school – that we focus on the science and somehow leave out policymaking or politics – seems to be either naive or disingenuous, because every action has some political agenda, for better or for worse,” Taimur Ahmad M.A. ’23 said.

Majumdar stressed that the school’s work will stay grounded in issues of equity, justice and diversity of perspective. “I believe in public service,” he told The Daily. “The president has a goal each morning, which is [to support] underrepresented and marginalized communities. All of that’s part of my work.”

Yet some individuals see a more complicated picture, pointing to what they see as a lack of attention given to justice and equity in Stanford’s sustainability efforts. In a statement to The Daily, the Environmental Justice (EJ) Working Group Coordinating Council, comprising a team of over thirty faculty, staff and student representatives, said that environmental justice faculty and expertise should be included in Stanford’s sustainability practices.

For years, we have been asking for more EJ faculty expertise and for their work to be central to all sustainability efforts at Stanford in order to serve student demand and our neighboring communities, all to no avail,” they wrote. “We have put forward multiple proposals and have asked time and time again for a seat at the table. We are counting on new leadership to reconsider who gets a say in defining what our ‘sustainability solutions’ will look like—who benefits and how from the new school and its funding.”

In a statement to The Daily, University spokesperson Karla Hudson wrote that Stanford “value[s] the contributions of the faculty, staff and students in the EJ Working Group Coordinating Council” and shares “the commitment to addressing environmental inequalities and creating more equitable access to environmental benefits.” Hudson added that these contributions led to the formation of the new Institute for Sustainable Societies, an interdisciplinary collaboration focused on fighting sustainability challenges within the Doerr School. 

“As the new Doerr School begins to take shape, we look forward to continued conversations with the EJ Working Group Coordinating Council and the many stakeholders who care deeply about environmental justice as we work to develop a diverse community of scholars,” Hudson wrote.

Despite the growing criticisms, others painted a more optimistic view of the school. Huang said the new school will bring “exciting” research opportunities for students and faculty. 

“I am someone that works in the area of battery [materials] and towards the goal of a more sustainable future,” Huang said, “so it’s definitely exciting to see Stanford’s taking a bigger initiative in setting up a new school.”

On social media, some students and faculty also expressed excitement about the launch of the school. 

Fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering Andrew Kim said the school’s sustainability mission will not be undermined “simply by accepting fossil fuel money” because that money “could be useful for really great research.”

“Accepting fossil fuels … does not necessarily mean that the research that goes on at Stanford is meant to advance the agenda for fossil fuel companies. In fact, a lot of times it can be the opposite,” Kim said. “My department is looking at methane … [which] could be used for things like bioplastic production or fishmeal.”

Kim added that though many researchers understand the urgency of climate change and the need to transition to renewable energy, people are still too reliant on fossil fuels to completely abandon them. He said conversing with stakeholders toward a broader mission of sustainability would prove most effective for the school.

“This new school is not going to change everything overnight. If the next day all fossil fuels instantly vanished from the earth, our society would collapse,” Kim said. “There are multiple ways and opportunities in which fossil fuel money could enhance research that is advancing sustainability.”

Majumdar has repeatedly maintained that the school will only work with corporate donors who have demonstrated a commitment to making their practices more sustainable. But whether fossil fuel companies can be trusted to transition to more sustainable models is murkier, according to Franta. 

“There isn’t really any evidence that … these companies are trying to change,” he said. “There’s actually a lot of evidence that they’re not changing.”

Franta encouraged students and community members to apply pressure to Stanford given the “high stakes” involved for society and the environment. “We have to continue watching what happens,” he said. “Students and faculty and others should keep scrutinizing how the new school does its work and who it takes money from.”

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