Exchange of letters with Stanford, in chronological order from top to bottom
Sept. 7, 2023
Jon Denney, Vice President for Development
Stanford University, Office of Development
Dear Mr. Denney,
Thank you for your letter reminding me of the current balance on my pledge to Stanford. I write to explain why I am unable to fulfill my obligation.
I face an ethical dilemma. Do I fulfill my financial promise to Stanford and allow my funds to be commingled with those of greenwashing fossil fuel companies? Or do I fulfill my moral commitment to the planet, withhold my funds, and know that I have honestly applied everything Stanford taught me about the threat that fossil fuels pose to current and future generations?
Knowing what I know, knowing what you know, I cannot in good faith fulfill a pledge to Stanford – specifically Hopkins Marine Station, an institution I love, which is now under the Doerr School of Sustainability – when my gift benefits the greenwashing aims of Chevron, Shell and other fossil fuel donors and taints any sustainability research agenda.
Fossil fuel company funding is to sustainability what tobacco company funding is to public health. Immoral. The important distinction is that the promotion and legitimization of tobacco only destroys individual human lives. The promotion and legitimization of fossil fuels threatens all of humanity and much of biodiversity. Fossil fuels represent an existential threat to human civilization. The more credibility fossil fuel companies are able to gain by associating themselves with Stanford, the worse off all of us will be, most especially the poor. Stanford’s willingness to let these companies greenwash sullies the reputation of what was once a great university and reinforces the impression that the University puts profits, in the form of donations, over principles.
Stanford has been incredibly important in my life. During my seven years as an undergraduate and graduate student, I gained an amazing education, made lifelong friends, and established a foundation for an eclectic career in environmental management, film, technology, entrepreneurship, software public policy, and government. Until I became aware of Stanford’s collaborations with fossil fuel companies, I was a proud lifetime member of Stanford Alumni Association and regular contributor to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I am no longer a proud alumnus. I am now an embarrassed one.
Adding to my conviction is Stanford’s persistent tin ear towards other ethical and social justice issues, including its refusal to abandon racist legacy preferences, its association with Peter Thiel and neo-fascists, and the former Stanford President Tessier-Lavigne’s disgraceful behavior and resignation. I sincerely hope the University is able to pioneer a new, more honorable, more climate-friendly direction, one that balances the understandable pursuit of fundraising with the University’s moral obligations for principled leadership in a world and time desperate for such.
Stanford ‘78, ‘79, ’85
On Sep 12, 2023, at 1:42 PM, Jon Denney <email@example.com> wrote:
Dear Mr. DeLapa,
Thank you very much for this thoughtful explanation of your decision – which I completely respect – regarding your pledge to Stanford.
Knowing that you have been following this issue closely, I believe you are aware of the university-wide Committee on Funding for Energy Research and Education, which is assessing input from the Stanford community and other sources. I recently inquired about the timeframe for the committee’s report and learned that it is expected in 8 to 10 weeks.
I also wanted to be sure you had seen this Message from Arun Majumdar, the dean of the Stanford Doer School of Sustainability, from 5/25/22. Dean Majumdar said, in part, “Among fossil fuel companies, some may: Deny the existence of climate change; Undermine and/or misrepresent the understanding of the science of climate change; Make public climate commitments while undermining sensible government policies that would otherwise facilitate significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; and/or Misuse their partnership with Stanford to undermine such policies or goals of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. As far as I am concerned, these behaviors are against my values. I believe that we at the Doerr School should not institutionally engage with such companies.”
Obviously, there are divergent views on this issue within the Stanford community, and we don’t know what the outcome of the committee’s work will be. And of course, I hope that at some time in the future, you may feel there are areas at Stanford you can support. But whatever the case may be, I truly hope you will remain engaged in this conversation. Stanford needs to hear from alumni who care as much as you do about the university’s impact, especially those willing to take the time to communicate clearly and persistently.
Thank you again for being in touch.
Jon Denney | Vice President
Office of Development
cell: (650) 346-9433
office: (650) 736-9106
Arrillaga Alumni Center | 326 Galvez Street, Stanford, CA 94305
September 19, 2023
Dear Mr. Denney,
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I am aware of the faculty committee and also the advisory council to the Doerr School, which includes several Stanford GSB colleagues. I’m eager to see their reports.
Regarding Dean Majumdar’s criteria for disengaging with fossil fuel companies:
Undermine and/or misrepresent the understanding of the science of climate change; Make public climate commitments while undermining sensible government policies that would otherwise facilitate significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; and/or Misuse their partnership with Stanford to undermine such policies or goals of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.
I would be interested in how, when and which fossil fuel companies Stanford has applied the criteria to and refused engage with. I’m unaware of any, and if they exist, I haven’t seen an announcement. Specifically, with regard to Chevron, how does Dean Majumdar reconcile this Stanford announcement touting Chevron’s ostensible support for net zero with Dr. Benjamin Franta (Stanford JD/PhD) report of Chevron’s ongoing disinformation campaign? They both cannot be true.
Chevron isn’t an outlier. It’s well documented that the entire fossil fuel industry has been undermining sensible government policies to protect public health and sustainability for decades. Does Stanford want to be complicit in this ongoing effort? You can Google “Shell,” “American Petroleum Institute,” and “ExxonMobil” and find dozens of examples, the most recent being the lawsuit that California just filed against five of the largest oil and gas companies, including Chevron, for a “‘decades-long campaign of deception’ about climate change and the risks posed by fossil fuels that has forced the state to spend tens of billions of dollars to address environmental-related damages.” As Naomi Oreskes and others have pointed out, any fossil fuel money undermines Stanford’s sustainability research and institutional credibility (more about that here).
I certainly hope Stanford finds its moral compass. I know I’m not the only alum who is brokenhearted by the University’s current path.