Donor to Stanford: No Big Oil
UNIVERSITY DONATION RESCINDED OVER AD
San Jose Mercury News, March 11, 2007
It's an engaging TV commercial. Kids swinging golf clubs, and not very well. Balls flying everywhere. People taking cover.
But to movie producer Steve Bing, the words that accompanied those pictures were horrifying - so horrifying that the prominent Stanford donor decided to rescind a promised $2.5 million donation to the school.
"Kids, they'll tackle almost anything. An approach we can all learn from," the commercial began. "So Exxon Mobil has teamed up with Stanford University to find breakthrough technologies that deliver more energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's a challenge. But we're getting there."
When the private university announced a partnership with the world's largest privately owned oil company in 2002 - Stanford will get up to $100 million from the company over 10 years to fund climate and energy research - critics questioned what Big Oil would be getting out of the deal. Now, they say, it's evident: a sweet public relations opportunity.
After seeing the Exxon Mobil commercial and several similar ads in the New York Times, Bing, who had already donated $22.5 million to the school, called Stanford President John Hennessy and said he would give no more. Bing also is asking other major philanthropists to reconsider their promises to give to the Stanford cause, broaching the subject in phone calls and at functions he attends. He hasn't had any takers yet, but expects that one day he will.
"Exxon Mobil is trying to greenwash itself, and it's using Stanford as its brush," said Yusef Robb, who works with Bing on climate issues.
"We think that people who give to Stanford do so because they want to help the future leaders of this nation, not because they want to advance the agenda of Exxon Mobil."
Bing, a former Stanford student who would comment only through Robb, is seeking an end to the 4-year-old ad campaign, which recently featured an ad on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. In addition, Robb said, "Stanford must reassure the public that its research, faculty and good name are not for sale."
Stanford officials have declined to comment on Bing's decision, saying that the details of private donations are kept confidential.
"However, we can say that we are proud of our work on seeking solutions to serious energy and environmental problems and our collaborations in these areas with a variety of private and non-profit organizations," university spokeswoman Elaine Ray said.
Exxon Mobil also defends the agreement, saying it has advertised its involvement mainly to call attention to the large research program.
"This is a partnership, and we're certainly not going to do anything that is in violation of that partnership - but we also think it's important that people know about some of the research that is going on," said Exxon Mobil spokesman Gantt Walton.
The controversy has some special resonance for Stanford, which has received millions of dollars from Bing's parents, Peter and Helen Bing, over the years. Peter Bing, heir to a real estate fortune, was formerly chairman of Stanford's board.
The university has named myriad buildings and programs after the family, including the Bing Nursery School, the Bing Overseas Studies program and the Bing Wing of the Cecil H. Green Library.
Peter Bing did not return a phone call from the Mercury News.
Steve Bing, for his part, has attached himself to many environmental causes. He spent about $50 million in an unsuccessful effort to pass Proposition 87, the November ballot initiative aimed at taxing oil companies to fund alternative energy initiatives. Among the big contributors against the measure: Exxon Mobil.
Stanford brand name
Jennifer Washburn, a researcher who tracks the increasingly cozy relationship between universities and corporations, said Bing "has very good reason to be concerned about how Stanford is allowing its academic brand name to be distorted by its outside relationship with corporate donors."
Washburn, author of "University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education," points to an early ad in which Exxon Mobil began touting the partnership. The ad, which ran on the New York Times op-ed page, suggested that scientists were debating the cause of global warming, even though there was a clear scientific consensus by that time that humans were responsible. The ad was signed by Lynn Orr, project director of the global climate program, and it carried Stanford's seal.
"Stanford really allowed Exxon Mobil to exploit Stanford's academic brand name," Washburn said. "They've done very little to protect their academic autonomy."
University officials scoff at that suggestion.
Ray, the Stanford spokeswoman, said research is driven by "faculty interest" and not subject to approval or review of any sponsor.
Added Ray: "The claim that Stanford has lost any academic autonomy as a result of sponsored research is preposterous on its face."