The San Jose Mercury News
May 22, 2007
By Julie Sevrens Lyons, Mercury News
Stanford poised to buck big donor
Stanford University has found itself caught squarely in the middle of a major proxy battle between a group of New Jersey nuns and the world’s largest privately owned oil company.
The university, which has been heavily criticized for taking up to $100 million from Exxon Mobil for climate and energy research, is poised this week to vote in favor of the nuns’ proposal that the oil giant immediately reduce its greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.
The vote would fall in line with the university’s policy to support proxy resolutions addressing climate change.
But Exxon Mobil officials are steadfastly against the proposal, and they’ve urged their shareholders to vote against it.
Why? Among the reasons the company gives in its proxy statement: its close relationship with Stanford.
"Exxon Mobil worked to establish and is providing $100 million to Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project – a pioneering climate and energy research effort," the company says on Page 61 of its proxy statement, which contains legally required information on issues to be voted on by shareholders. "Our involvement enables the corporation to readily assess new technologies for commercialization, and investment as appropriate, to improve shareholder value."
It’s just the kind of language that late last year prompted a major Stanford donor to rescind his offer to donate $2.5 million to the university. Former Stanford student Steve Bing, a movie producer and staunch environmentalist, was horrified that Stanford allowed Big Oil to use the school’s name and logo in a widespread advertising campaign. This spring, Bing has been urging other philanthropists to reconsider giving money to the university until – as he puts it – Stanford can assure them its research, faculty and good name are not for sale.
Bing couldn’t be reached for comment Monday, but Yusef Robb, who has worked closely with him on climate issues, said that while he couldn’t speak for Bing, he himself was appalled by the comments in the proxy statement.
"This is exactly what’s wrong with Stanford’s deal with Exxon Mobil," Robb said. "Exxon Mobil has free rein to offset its bad deeds by citing its partnership with Stanford."
Dave Gardner, an Exxon Mobil spokesman, said Monday that no matter how Stanford votes on the issue, "our commitment to the Global Climate and Energy Project is unchanged. We’re very proud of our relationship."
He said the company referred to its partnership with Stanford in the proxy statement as just "one aspect of a multi-faceted response to climate change."
In 2002, the university announced its partnership with Exxon Mobil and three other major corporations, including Toyota, to create the Global Climate and Energy Project. The goal: finding new ways to supply energy to a growing world population in a way that protects the environment.
Skeptics immediately questioned what Exxon Mobil would get out of the deal. And now they say it’s evident: the perfect marketing tool. None of the other donors to the program, they say, have been touting the arrangement in advertising, let alone proxy statements for millions of shareholders.
"Exxon is the only bad actor," said Kirk Miller, a Stanford alumnus who has been working with the Stanford Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility, which last week voted to back the nuns’ proposal.
Still, some environmentalists are commending Stanford for flexing its shareholder muscle to support the greenhouse gas emissions proposal drafted by the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell New Jersey.
The environmentally conscious nuns generate their own solar energy. Their proposal, backed by 41 other co-filers, calls for Exxon Mobil to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions from the company’s products and operations – and come up with a plan on how to do it by Sept. 30.
As a shareholder, Stanford has voting rights, and the board of trustees is widely expected to follow the advisory panel’s recommendations and support the measure Wednesday.
Stanford officials Monday would not comment on the upcoming vote, other than to say in a statement that "the Stanford Management Co.’s proxy voting guidelines support well-written proxy resolutions asking companies to report on efforts to remedy, reduce and/or eliminate causes of climate change."
Milestone of a vote
But some environmentalists who have been following the controversy over the university’s relationship with Exxon Mobil said that Stanford’s expected vote is monumental.
"Stanford is standing up to Exxon Mobil and demanding they be a responsible citizen and reduce emissions now," Miller said. "I think it is a message to other potential donors that while we appreciate the funding and support, we also want them to be good corporate citizens."
Some critics of Stanford’s ties to Exxon Mobil said that while they applaud the school’s move, it does nothing to address their concerns that the university may have entered into a bad agreement with the oil company.
"I’d like to see them renegotiate the entire Global Climate and Energy Project deal," said John M. Simpson, a consumer advocate with the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
While Robb isn’t sure whether Steve Bing will ever donate to Stanford again, he said the longtime donor has certainly vowed not to do so unless Stanford redefines its Exxon Mobil relationship.
"Stanford has allowed itself to be used as a tool of Exxon Mobil time and time again, whether in newspaper ads, in television ads and now in a communication to millions of people," Robb said. "I would hope that Stanford would take action to preserve all the credibility it’s built up over the last century, because it’s very quickly going away."
Contact Julie Sevrens Lyons at email@example.com or (408) 920-5989.