The Doerr School of Sustainability is under considerable pressure from the Stanford community to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry, with recent statements from the school’s leadership suggesting they are open to re-evaluating their relationship with the industry.
Comments made by Majumdar and Doerr this month show a partial departure from the sustainability school’s initial stance on the matter of fossil fuel funding. Following an interview with Majumdar in May, The New York Times reported that the school “would work with and accept donations from fossil fuel companies,” but Majumdar has recently hinted that his stance could change after he concludes his listening tour. He told alumni last week that the school will “publish what we learned to the community, and then see what we can do about it” when the tour concludes at the end of fall quarter.
Majumdar wrote in May that he is looking forward to hearing from the community through a listening tour and “creating a set of shared values and goals by the end of the Autumn quarter of 2022.”
When asked if Majumdar’s listening tour could affect the school’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry, University spokesperson Dee Mostofi wrote that “the perspectives and insights gleaned from these conversations will support the creation of a set of shared principles to further guide the school’s actions.”
The University did not comment specifically on how the listening tour could affect funding from fossil fuel companies, including currently active sources of funding. However, it leaves Doerr open to reframing its relationship with the fossil fuel industry after the listening tour.
This gradual shift in the University’s stance comes after months of debate in the Stanford community.
Stanford previously faced backlash for its investment in oil and gas companies. Criticism resurged in May, with a new focus on how money from the industry contributes to the new sustainability school.
Fossil fuel companies do not fund general operations, wrote Dean Arun Majumdar in an open letter last May. However, oil and gas companies interact with the sustainability school through Industry Affiliate Programs initiatives in the Precourt Institute of Energy. Stanford researchers can also accept private grants and fellowships, like the Chevron Fellowship, independent of the University.
All fourteen Industry Affiliate Programs in the sustainability school are funded by petroleum companies, according to the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, a group of students, faculty, and alumni calling on the school to cut ties with the industry. The programs’ focuses vary, including research on subsurface modeling and exploration for oil deposits and other natural resources.
Member companies in Stanford Affiliate Programs cannot dictate research or curriculum of affiliated faculty. They can submit suggestions, send visiting scholars, and access students and faculty in the program, including for recruiting.
Majumdar explained his support for collaboration with the fossil fuel industry and encouraged the community to listen to differing opinions, in his message to the community in May.
“If there are companies that are making measurably meaningful efforts to be part of the solution, I feel it would be prudent to be open to engaging such companies, while remaining vigilant that their values align with ours,” Majumdar wrote in May.
Recent statements from leadership have tied the future of fossil fuel funding to the listening tour, which officially started in May to engage with community members.
Investor and venture capitalist John Doerr, for whom the school was named following his $1.1 billion donation, said that Majumdar wanted “to hear the views of the faculty, the students, the researchers, the stakeholders, and then [he will] come forward with a decision for the school” at The New York Times’ A New Climate event earlier this month.
When the moderator asked if Majumdar had made a decision, Doerr replied “No, he’s on that listening tour now.”
Before the event, Doerr told The Daily that global climate goals are “probably going to require a lot of capture and sequestration of carbon. You’ve got to bury it underground.”
“The petroleum industry has the scale and scope to be a part of the solution to that problem, so I don’t want to write them out of trying to solve the problem,” Doerr said.
Economics professor Frank Wolak concurred with Doerr, contending that alienating the fossil fuel industry will only limit Stanford’s influence over industry regulation. “We shouldn’t shame [oil and gas companies]. They’re just going to retrench, and they’ll refuse to listen to these same people when they advocate for something more impactful, like a carbon tax,” Wolak said.
However, several students are critical of the school’s acceptance of fossil fuel funding. Majumdar told The New York Times in May that the school would continue to accept funding from the fossil fuel industry under his leadership.
Two weeks after Majumdar’s interview, five Ph.D. students published an open letter calling on the Doerr School to reject funding from fossil fuel companies. Their letter has since collected over 800 signatures.
“It is difficult to imagine that fossil fuel companies — whose core business model is diametrically opposed to science-led climate action — are appropriate partners for climate-related research,” they wrote.
At the opening ceremony of the Doerr School of Sustainability, Majumdar told protestors who interrupted the ceremony, “We hear you, we hear you loud and clear.”
When asked in an interview afterwards how he would minimize the influence of vested interests of fossil fuel companies, Majumdar referred to his listening tour.
“Now that the students are back, I’ll be going on my listening tour,” Majumdar told the Daily after the protest in September. “If there are issues which are debatable, and we’ll see what we get because I don’t want to prejudge or predict anything, then we should have a discussion in a transparent way.”
Results from the listening tour are expected by the end of the fall quarter.