Harvard law professor Jody Freeman is facing widespread calls to step down from the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, the fossil fuel giant that’s building the controversial Willow project in Alaska’s North Slope.
On the one hand, Freeman sells herself as a climate scholar and co-chairs the Presidential Committee on Sustainability at Harvard. On the other hand, she has raked in $3.52 million since 2012 as a director of one of the world’s top carbon emitters and tapped her professional networks to help ConocoPhillips lobby the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2021 against new climate regulations .
According to her latest SEC filing from April 2023, Freeman also currently owns 6,680 common shares and 25,284 stock units of ConocoPhillips stock, worth nearly $3.5 million as of the beginning of April. This huge stock ownership gives Freeman a vested interest in seeing ConocoPhillips’s oil and gas profits grow.
Freeman’s — and thereby Harvard’s — connection to ConocoPhillips is a problem for several reasons. Freeman’s position on the ConocoPhillips’s board bestows Harvard’s prestigious imprint and Freeman’s supposed green credentials onto the oil company, greenwashing its image even as it expands its fossil fuel operations against widespread global opposition. Indeed, ConocoPhillips openly uses Freeman to give lip service to sustainability and climate issues even as it doubles down on “carbon bomb” oil projects.
By giving green cover to ConocoPhillips’s oil business, Freeman’s relationship with the corporation also has an inverse impact on Harvard. It discredits Harvard’s purported climate commitments and creates major conflicts for the institution around advancing climate progress. After all, how serious can a Presidential Committee on Sustainability co-chaired by a major oil company director who rakes in millions off of the business of expanding oil drilling and gushing out carbon emissions really be?
While fossil fuel executives managing oil and gas corporations are more public-facing, corporate directors are perhaps more powerful, serving in the highest governing roles of fossil fuel companies while also being more behind-the-scenes. After all, the executives answer to the board of directors. Corporate directors also own huge amounts of stock in the fossil fuel companies they govern, giving them a direct interest in seeing the company’s stock price rise even if it means continuing and expanding climate-destroying oil and gas production.
As the climate crisis deepens and as activists look to take ever bolder action against the drivers of climate injustice, too many universities and colleges continue to lavish prestigious, career-enhancing titles on the directors of fossil fuel corporations, keeping them in polite society amidst rising extreme heat waves and devastating global ice melting.
Nor is the problem just that these trustee seats greenwash oil companies: they also throw into doubt the capacity and commitment of universities and colleges to adequately engage with and address the climate crisis. Can fossil fuel divestment win — or even if it’s approved, be adequately implemented — when oil profiteers are in positions of university governance? Will business schools governed by fossil fuel directors create a culture where climate-hamring industries are more morally acceptable? Should university trustees or advisors with personal ties to the fossil fuel industry be required to recuse themselves from any university matters related to climate and environmental justice?
While Freeman’s conflicts and hypocrisy are especially stark, her role as a link between the fossil fuel industry and academia is by no means unique. Numerous oil and gas and fossil utility powerhouses have boards of directors that are populated by college professors and university trustees. Directors of companies such as Chevron, Marathon, Valero, and Southern Company sit on boards at progressive liberal arts colleges and prestigious medical and business schools.
Chevron is one of the top all-time contributors to the global climate crisis. One report found the company was responsible for 1.3% of all cumulative direct Scope 1 and indirect Scope 3 global industrial GHG emissions between 1988 and 2015, making it the world’s 12th biggest polluter during that time. As the climate crisis deepens, Chevron continues to benefit more than ever, raking in a record $36.5 billion in profits in 2022. The company runs polluting refineries across the U.S., from Richmond, California to Pasadena, Texas, and it has no qualms about spending millions against opponents who try to win accountability around injustices like polluting Indigenous lands.
With all that, some university and college communities with progressive reputations might be surprised to learn that the same people who run the show at Chevron also govern their institutions of higher education.
John B. Frank has served as a Chevron director since 2017. In 2022 alone he took in $388,938 in total compensation from the oil giant. As of March 15, 2023, Frank owned 29,386 total shares of Chevron stock, worth over $4.5 million. Frank is also the Vice Chairman, Oaktree Capital Group, a private equity firm that, together with its top stakeholder, Brookfield Asset Management, owns 40 fossil fuel companies, according to a 2022 Private Equity Stakeholder report. The report gave Brookfield/Oaktree a “D” as its total grade on a range of climate demands.
Frank is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college in Connecticut with a reputation as a liberal bastion. While Wesleyan touts its commitment to sustainability and has said it will divest from fossil fuels by 2030, its governing board is helmed by a fossil fuel profiteer who personally directs a Big Oil major and owns millions of dollars worth of oil stock. This puts Wesleyan in the position of de facto greenwashing, in a high level way, a key leader at one of the oil industry’s largest players. This not only contradicts the university’s own stated climate commitments, but creates conflicts over their implementation in the years to come, since its most powerful trustee has a vested, material interest in seeing the fossil fuel business grow and profit.
Frank is by no means alone when it comes to Chevron directors with ties to higher education. Alice P. Gast, a Chevron director since 2012, served as the President of Imperial College London from 2014 to August 2022, and before that she was President of Lehigh University, a small liberal arts college outside Philadelphia, from 2006 until 2014. She has also held professorships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University and is an Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London.
Gast’s profile on Chevron’s board page states that “[a]t Imperial College London,[she] oversaw environmental institutes and centers” and “[a]t Lehigh University, [she] presided over environmental centers.” This illustrates how Chevron uses Gast’s climate reputation and academic ties to greenwash itself. Gast was directing Chevron and personally profiting from the company during her entire tenure as Imperial College London’s president and part of her tenure as Lehigh’s president.
The University of Southern California has multiple connections to Chevron’s board. Ronald D. Sugar, a Chevron director since 2005, is a trustee of USC. Sugar is also a senior advisor to Ares Management, a private equity firm with major fossil fuel investments. In addition to his governing role at USC, Sugar is also a Dean’s Executive Board Member of the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and a member of the UCLA Anderson School of Management’s board of visitors.
Wanda Austin, a Chevron director since December 2016 and since May 2022 the company’s lead director, served as USC’s Interim President from August 2018 until July 2019 and also holds an adjunct Research Professor appointment at the USC’s Viterbi School’s School of Engineering, where she has also served as a Trustee. Debra Reed-Klages, a Chevron director since December 2018, serves on the Board of Councilors of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
Other Chevron directors also have university roles. Marillyn A. Hewson, a Chevron director since January 2021, is a member of the President’s Cabinet of the University of Alabama and a member of Board of Visitors of the university’s business school. Enrique Hernandez, Jr. a Chevron director since 2008, is a member of the Harvard College Visiting Committee as well as the Harvard University Resources Committee, according to his Chevron page.
Marathon owns the 2nd, 3rd, and 9th biggest oil refineries in the U.S., and that doesn’t even include its Detroit, Michigan refinery, which, according to the Guardian, has helped drive “environmental justice nightmare” in the surrounding area. Its Galveston Bay refinery is the dirtiest in the U.S. Still, the company rakes in big profits, including $3.6 billion in 2022.
Susan Tomasky, a Marathon director since 2018, is a trustee at Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school in central Ohio that has seen calls for divestments from fossil fuels. Tomasky has raked in over $1.5 million in total compensation from Marathon and, according to her most recent disclosure, holds 25,603 shares of Marathon stock that were worth $3.47 million at the beginning of April 2023. Tomasky is also a former executive at American Electric Power, one of the worst polluting electric utilities in the U.S.
Jonathan Z. Cohen, a Marathon director since 2019, sits on the Board of Advisors of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to profiting from Marathon’s business operations, Cohen was also the co-founder of oil and gas companies Atlas Energy and its affiliates and Atlas Pipeline Partners, for which he served a range of executive and board positions.
J. Michael Stice, a Marathon director since 2017, held executive positions at subsidiaries of oil and gas powerhouse Chesapeake Energy, including at Chesapeake Midstream Development and Access Midstream, serving as CEO of the latter until 2014. After leaving Chesapeake, he became Dean of the University of Oklahoma’s Mewbourne College of Earth & Energy, which says it’s “committed” to “petroleum engineering.” At the same time, Stice was a “co-leader” of Oklahoma Solve Climate by 2030, a teach-in aimed at “understanding climate change and actions that can be taken locally to help solve it,” sponsored by the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College.
Marathon directors also have board seats with major university-affiliated medical centers. Toni Townes-Whitley, a new Marathon director as of 2023, serves on the Board of Trustees of Johns Hopkins Medicine, and John P. Surma, the non-executive chairman of Marathon’s board and a director since 2011, also chairs the board of directors of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Townes-Whitley also serves on Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative.
Former U.S. senator and the governor of Indiana Evan Bayh is a member of the Dean’s Council of Indiana University’s Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs despite the fact that he’s been a Marathon director since 2011 as well as a senior advisor to private equity oil investor Apollo Global Management.
Refining giant Valero ranks thirtieth on the Fortune 500 list of top U.S. companies by revenue. The company took in $3.1 billion in profits in 2022 while it operated some of the nation’s most polluting refineries, including in St. Charles, Louisiana — located in the state’s “Cancer Alley” — and Benicia, Calfironia.
Deborah Platt Majoras, Valero director since 2012, is a trustee of Westminster College in Pennsylvania, and she previously served as the chair of the school’s board. Valero’s former board chairman, William R. Klesse, Jr., is a trustee of the University of Dayton.
But Valero directors also have a significant presence on governing and advising boards at business schools and schools of medicine. Eric D. Mullins, a Valero director since 2020, is a trustee of the Baylor College School of Medicine. Mullins is also a director of ConocoPhillips and the Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Lime Rock Resources, an energy-focused private equity firm that has a portfolio of dozens of fossil fuel reserves. Kim Greene, a Valero director since 2016, is a trustee of Morehouse College’s School of Medicine. Greene also serves as the Chair, President and CEO of Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the dirtiest fossil utilities in the U.S.
Randall J. Weisenburger, Valero director since 2011, is a former member of the Board of Overseers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Rayford Wilkins, Jr. a Valero director since 2011, sits on the Advisory Council of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, according to his Valero profile. Marie A. Ffolkes, a Valero director since 2022, sits on the Global Advisory Board of the Chazen Institute for Global Business at Columbia Business School.
Electric utilities account for about one quarter of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the dirtiest among them are represented among university boards. A prime example is the Atlanta-based Southern Company, which for years has sat atop the rankings of the biggest carbon-spewing utilities. Southern Company runs by far the largest carbon-emitting coal-fired power plant in the U.S. — the James H. Miller Jr plant in Quinton, Alabama — which it has no plans to retire.
Numerous Southern Company directors who each rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year have governing positions at universities. Lizanne Thomas is a trustee of Washington & Lee University, in Arlington, Virginia, while E. Jenner Wood III is a trustee of Atlanta’s Emory University (if that wasn’t enough, Andrew W. Evans, former Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Southern Company, is also an Emory trustee).
Two Southern Company directors with ties to universities are major figures who have held significant sway at the height of federal regulatory power over energy policy. Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission commissioner Colette Honorable — who was cozy with the utility industry while being in regulatory position over it — is a Dean’s Advisory Board Member at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Former Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz was a pivotal backer of fracking in the early 2010s while running the MIT Energy Initiative, and he still holds a “post-tenure” position at MIT.
Finally, Southern Company director Kristine L. Svinicki, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan. And as mentioned above, Valero director Kim Greene, who is Chair, President and CEO of Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, is a trustee of Morehouse College’s School of Medicine.
Other fossil fuel directors represented on university boards
Many other fossil fuel and utility boards contain university trustees. For example:
- Occidental: One of the top drillers in the Permian Basin oilfield, Occidental’s board includes Avedick B. Poladian, who is both a member of the Board of Advisors of the USC Price School of Public Policy as well as a member of the Board of Advisors of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Poladian is also a former trustee of Loyola Marymount University.
- DTE: The Detroit-based utility giant still relies heavily on coal to generate one of the dirtiest energy mixes in the U.S. DTE Director Gail J. McGovern was Harvard professor until 2008, and she currently serves as a trustee of Johns Hopkins Medicine and is an emeritus trustee of Johns Hopkins University.
- EQT: As we’ve written about before, top Pennsylvania fracker EQT has numerous close ties to the University of Pittsburgh. On top of its executive ties, EQT director Frank C. Hu also serves as an advisory board member for the Geology & Planetary Science Division at the California Institute of Technology.
- Pioneer Natural Resources: Fracking giant Pioneer’s board includes not one, but two Advisory Board members of Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, Scott D. Sheffield and Maria Dreyfus, as well as Lori G. Billingsley, member of the Board of Visitors of Howard University’s School of Communications. Dreyfus is also a member of the MIT Corporation’s Development Committee and the MIT Economics Department’s Visiting Committee.
- Enterprise Products: One of the nation’s biggest oil and gas pipeline companies, Enterprises’s board includes James H Tackett, a trustee of both Rice University and Baylor College’s School of Medicine Board of Trustees, and W. Randall Fowler, and Advisory Board member of the College of Business at Louisiana Tech University.
- Range Resources: The fracked-gas giant Range Resources has directors that include Brenda A. Cline, a trustee of Texas Christian University, and Steve D. Gray who sits on the Board of the Texas Tech Foundation and the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Engineering at Texas Tech.
While fossil fuel boards remain awash with university ties, there are signs of increasing pressure on institutions of higher education to distance themselves from climate crisis profiteers. The campaign around Jody Freeman is one example. The new Fossil Free Research organization is broadly upping the ante on colleges and universities to break from oil and gas money, while campaign likes Divest Harvard are demanding that trustees like David Rubenstein — a lover of oil and gas whose private equity firm, Carlyle Group, has billions invested in fossil fuel companies, and who is also the board chair of the University of Chicago — recuse themselves from any governing decisions related to climate or or resign from Harvard’s governing board. With all this, it may be only a matter of time until more universities start to feel the heat over their fossil fuel-tied trustees.
LittleSis will be publishing more research, reports and data in the coming months on the ties between university trustees and the fossil fuel industry, as well as corporate power more broadly. Stay tuned!