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Public outcry ensues after state university auctioned off 'academic freedom' to the highest bidder: 'Gross misuse of the public trust'

"That's what they're doing."

"That's what they're doing."

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Oil and gas companies are donating to Louisiana State University to influence research and class curriculum, with set prices for what they get with a donation, reported the Guardian and New Orleans-based newsroom The Lens in April.

What's happening?

According to the joint report, in 2022, Shell donated $25 million to create the Institute for Energy Innovation. This donation gave the oil company a say in the research conducted and the coursework for the university's new focus on carbon capture, use, and storage.

The university's fundraisers used that partnership to find other oil company donors. While the Institute for Energy Innovation Director, Brad Ives, denied to reporters that company donations compromised the integrity of the research, the university's fundraising arm created a document that outlines what each donation level gets, per the reporting. 

Per the document, for a $5 million "investment," the oil company would get a seat on the Institute for Energy Innovation's advisory board, which includes voting rights to vote on "research activities." The company also gets to review the research and access intellectual property. 

Per the Guardian and Lens, ExxonMobil donated $2 million to become the university's first "Strategic Partner," which is the second donor level, per the document. This level comes with voting rights and reviews of research activities. Another document shows that at least eight other companies have discussed similar deals with the university, the report detailed. 

Former LSU journalism professor and political commentator Robert Mann told said in the joint report, "I have a hard time seeing a faculty member engaged in legitimate research being eager for an oil company or representative of a chemical company to vote on his or her research agenda."

He added: "If you're a faculty member in that unit you should know that the university is fine with auctioning off your academic freedom. That's what they're doing."

After reviewing LSU documents on the university's partnership with Big Oil, Jane Patton, an LSU alumna and the Fossil Economy Campaign Manager for the Center for International Environmental Law, said, per the Guardian and Lens, "This is the first time I've seen actual evidence of it. This is a gross misuse of the public trust."

Why is it concerning that oil companies are influencing research?

While the polluting gases oil companies produce are the main cause of rising temperatures, the major oil companies have deceived the public and continue to do so around climate policies and science, according to groups such as the Union for Concerned Scientists. 

Exxon has internally acknowledged rising temperatures but has outwardly denied it, as noted in an article in Environmental Research Letters. It's concerning that companies that care more about profits than their consumers would have so much influence on climate research and curriculum. 

This kind of practice is particularly troubling in Louisiana, which is experiencing more intense hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, and rain due to rising temperatures. 

A study from 2023 found that hurricanes have caused 18,000 deaths in the month of a storm and the month after it, for 179 storms in the last 32 years. While the oil companies want to keep a good public image, people are dying from natural disasters related to rising temperatures.

What's being done about oil company donations?

In 2023, students from the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, Tufts University, Pomona College, Washington University in St. Louis, and Pennsylvania State University filed complaints with their respective attorneys general to scrutinize these donations. Other students have made similar complaints and critiques over the past decade, with some forming oversight committees to put pressure on their universities to ban donations from oil companies. 

Last year, the LSU student senate voted for a divestment resolution, which passed 37-2, per the Guardian and Lens.

The good news is that at least seven universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Stanford University, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and New York University, have partially or fully exited their partnerships with oil companies, according to CBS News. 

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