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University refuses to disinvite speakers with oil industry ties to appease students

‘The evening’s program and guest list is unchanged’

The University of Houston is not caving to pressure to disinvite speakers connected to the oil industry.

It spurned a petition started by a recent graduate that called on the public university to stop Gerald McElvy, a board of regents member, and alumna April Feick from speaking at Thursday’s fall convocation.

McElvy worked for ExxonMobil for 33 years, while Feick is executive advisor to the chairman of the corporation. Feick is giving the keynote speech and McElvy is introducing her.

The petition argues that “the administration should feel the utmost responsibility to fight environmental racism in Houston,” claiming that ExxonMobil’s alleged sins primarily hurt people of color. It points to fines, judgments and ongoing litigation against ExxonMobil in the Houston area, a heavy producer of oil, and other states.

University officials should “instead invite speakers who represent the values the University of Houston strives to uphold,” according to the petition.

It cites the university’s mission statement as contrary to the invitations – that the community should “identify and respond to the economic, social and cultural challenges affecting the quality of life in the city of Houston, the state of Texas and the world.” The invitations also violate the values of “the student body and community.”

Houston Public Media reported Monday night that “nearly 300 students, alumni, and others” had signed the petition at that time, a figure it apparently received from Katherine Fischer, who created it.

Neither Fischer nor the University of Houston Against ExxonMobil has provided an update on signatures from their Twitter profiles since Aug. 19, when the activist group said it turned in more than 200 signatures. The tweet received five likes and three retweets.

Current university enrollment is more than 46,000, according to university figures. It claims to have the “1st In The Nation” master’s program for “subsea engineering,” the specialty of offshore petroleum engineers.

“The Fall Convocation celebrates the hard work, achievements and potential of University of Houston faculty and students, and connects them with UH alumni and community leaders,” according to a statement independently provided to The College Fix by two media relations staffers for the university, Shawn Lindsey and Chris Stipes.

“We look forward to our students hearing from invited guests who span a wide array of backgrounds, associations and experiences,” the statement continued:

Academic freedom is a cornerstone of American higher education. American universities are forums for expression, discussion and debate, and to be true to their social mission, they cannot disinvite guests because the positions or affiliations of those guests may be objectionable to some members of the public or the university community.

In a subsequent email, Lindsey specified: “The evening’s program and guest list is unchanged.” They did not answer whether the university will be more cautious in who it invites to speak in the future, given the opposition to oil-connected speakers.

Despite its defense of academic freedom in this case, the university earns the worst speech-code rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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Protest organizer wants to jail energy executives

ExxonMobil and the university have connections beyond McElvy and Feick.

Nearly two years ago they entered into a five-year research agreement focusing “on helping the industry develop energy-efficient solutions for manufacturing petrochemical products while minimizing their environmental impact,” the university said at the time. It was the university’s broadest research agreement with industry at the time.

The energy company also sponsors scholarships for students in the university’s chemical and biomolecular engineering department. Another ExxonMobil scholarship fund independent of the university, but available to Hispanic students in the Houston area among other cities, provides $20,000 to one student and 12 local scholarships for $2,000.

Both Twitter accounts for Fischer and the anti-ExxonMobil group are promoting a “Rally for Climate Justice at University of Houston,” hosted by Fischer, as an “alternative” to the fall convocation.

The Thursday rally will start 90 minutes before the convocation outside the campus building where convocation will be held. The description says climate activists will “speak about what we can all do as Houstonians to fight against the climate crisis.”

It says participants will “protest” but is not more specific on whether they will attempt to disrupt convocation. Nine people have said they are going.

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The Fix asked Fischer and the anti-ExxonMobil group for interviews about the petition via their Twitter and Facebook pages. Neither responded.

Both created their Twitter accounts this month. The first tweet by the activist group is a retweet of an article about a pending trial against ExxonMobil by New York State, which alleges it committed investor fraud by misleading investors about “what it knew concerning the climate crisis.”

The campaign against the ExxonMobil commencement speakers got a boost from veteran environmental activist Bill McKibben the same day it launched.

The protest group said last week that the university told it President Renu Khator has no role in speaker selection for convocation and will not “pre-approve or disinvite them.” It told Khator she was complicit because “Neutrality IS a choice.”

It did not promote the Thursday rally until Tuesday, the day after the university told Houston Public Media that it would not change the speaker lineup for convocation.

Fischer’s Twitter profile shows her apparent enthusiasm for jailing energy executives.

She retweeted two posts by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last week that promote his plan to sue and criminally prosecute “Fossil fuel executives” for “the [environmental] destruction they have knowingly caused.”

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About the Author
Connor Ellington -- University of Texas