WPI says students must choose between speaker and receiving diploma on stage

Posted by Jeremy Shulkin

Three weeks ago some of Worcester Polytechnic Institutes’ students and faculty criticized the school for choosing Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, as this year’s commencement speaker. Dissenters charge the company hasn’t done enough to invest in clean energy, has active air and groundwater pollution lawsuits against them in New York and Massachusetts and still hasn’t fully paid punitive damages stemming from the 1989 oil spill off of the coast of Alaska — all issues that don’t mesh with the school’s mission statement or growing “green” image. We wrote about this in our April 14 issue.

In response, students have organized a separate commencement speaker: Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. From the dissenting WPI students’ website:

Richard Heinberg’s work is a powerful symbol of our wishes for WPI: a university which, in line with its budding green image, chooses to honor someone with leadership and vision, rather than a baron of the past, a force of the status quo.

WPI students, members of the group Students for a Just and Stable Future and their visiting families who prefer to hear Heinberg speak said they would walk out quietly during the ceremony, then rejoin later to walk across the stage and pick up their diplomas. Again, from their website:

[W]e will walk out quietly and undisruptively, with respect for the ceremony that, we too, hold dear, and to the students who wish to hear Tillerson speak. We would like to minimize the amount of disturbance as we file in and out of our seats, and we are working with the administration to arrange a time when those wishing to leave are invited to do so.

WPI administration then sent an email to the student body on Wednesday, April 27 informing these students that if they leave they will not be let back in and their diplomas will be mailed to them.

We have been made aware that some degree candidates are considering leaving the Quadrangle after they have been seated. We want to make those candidates aware that should they leave the Quadrangle area, they will not be permitted to retake their seats and, therefore, will not be able to cross the stage to receive their diplomas. It will simply not be possible for students to reenter the seating area to seek out their seats without causing chaos and confusion, which would be disrespectful to other graduates and to our invited guests.

The group considering leaving the Quadrangle has indicated their desire to manage their protest with respect and minimal disturbance. To quote from their own message: “Our intent is not to disrupt the ceremony, but rather to show integrity in our values.” We believe the policy outlined above is the only reasonable way to achieve that goal.

But students contend they’ve approached the administration with various ways of making sure there’s no disruption — one such proposal had a row of chairs in the back for students to easily slide in and out of before and after Tillerson’s speech. Another letter has been sent to WPI President Dennis Berkey’s office by the students asking him to reconsider this policy.

Yesterday afternoon the saga received more attention: Asher Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, blogged about it at the Huffington Post.

Update: And now Daily Kos as well.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “WPI says students must choose between speaker and receiving diploma on stage

  1. Boots

    Obviously WPI is in the pocket of the corporatists. The good part of the story is that some of the students and faculty aren’t. They are much smarter than the administrators, fer sur.

    Nothing lasts forever. Even planet earth will be gone someday. Most likely companies like Exxon-Mobil and those who support them will be the cause of it.

  2. Thanks for following this story. The national attention was good for those students. I hope they make their criticism of Exxon loud and clear.

  3. I’d leave & have mine mailed to me & be proud of standing up for my beliefs. Haven’t visited an Exxon since 89′ under my own car’s power.

  4. kl chipman

    as the parent of one of these students, i was not aware of the ramifications of this silent protest. imagine my heartbreak as i proudly waited for my son to cross the stage to receive his diploma and his name was skipped over. i learned that the “protesters” would go after everyone else, yet my heart broke once again when we met up for reception and i asked to see his diploma which had been withheld. what should have been one of a parents proudest days was marred by the decision to have a commencement speaker who does not represent the vision of the future that WPI graduates share. i am however very proud of the few who value their integrity over the bullying tactics of the administration. it is those students who bring hope for the future.

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