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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Fossil Free Dartmouth publishes “Investigating Irving” report critiquing College’s ties to fossil fuels

Several professors expressed skepticism at the report’s findings and methodology.

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On Oct. 24, Fossil Free Dartmouth, a climate activist student organization, published “Investigating Irving: A Fossil Free Dartmouth Report” about the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. 

The report criticized the Irving Institute for its financial and titular connections to the Irving Oil Company and the Irving family. It contrasted the Irving Institute’s mission “to advance an affordable, sustainable and reliable energy future for the benefit of society,” as stated on the Institute’s website, with its connections to the fossil fuel industry. 

According to the report, these connections include a 2016 $80 million pledge from Irving Oil, the Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation, Arthur L. Irving, Sandra L. Irving and Sarah Irving ’10, T’14 used, along with an additional $80 million raised from other donations, to establish the Irving Institute.

The report further critiqued the membership of the Institute’s Advisory Board, which includes fossil fuel executives such as Irving Oil president Ian Whitcomb and ExxonMobil brand manager Abigail Rodgers ’90.

Maya Beauvineau ’26, a co-author of the report, said that she and the other authors believe the Irving Institute is one example of the College’s fossil fuel connections. Beauvineau added that these connections represent the College’s greater ties to the fossil fuels industry, even after its plan to divest all direct holdings which were announced in 2021. 

“What our report is aiming to do is open up conversation about the broader trends of academia being associated with the fossil fuel industry,” Beauvineau said. “We’re not at all attacking the Irving Institute itself, but rather calling out the serious concerns that are presented when Dartmouth chooses to associate financially with the fossil fuel industry.” 

Beauvineau said dissociation requires not only divesting, but also cutting all financial ties with the fossil fuel industry by refusing “gifts and research funding from the fossil fuel industry.” 

“At a time when we need to be moving away from fossil fuels and stripping oil companies of their moral legitimacy, Dartmouth is instead openly embracing them,” wrote Kate Yeo ’25, co-author of the report, in an email statement. “Our peers like Princeton and Harvard have already taken steps to guard against the fossil fuel industry’s influence. We see this report as a valuable opportunity for Dartmouth to turn things around and take leadership.”

The authors of the report argued for five changes to the Institute to make progress toward dissociation: Changing the name of the building from The Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society to the “Center for Climate Futures”; increasing funding, approval and prioritization of campus sustainability initiatives; removing “fossil fuel representatives” from the Irving Institute Advisory Board; rejecting donations and research funding from fossil fuel companies; and excluding fossil fuel companies from recruiting on campus while encouraging programming from public and non-profit organizations. 

Dr. Robert K. McLellan, a member of the Institute’s Faculty Advisory Board, said that he had previously reflected on whether the Irving name was appropriate for the Irving Institute. Ultimately, McLellan explained that the name provided necessary transparency. 

“You wouldn’t want a donation like that to be hidden and not be out front,” he said. 

Furthermore, “any research journal worth their salt” requires funding disclosures for submitted research, he said, adding that these factors prevent “bad actors.”

In a statement, College media relations strategist Jana Barnello confirmed that research by Dartmouth faculty is not influenced by donors’ interests. 

“As the students’ document indicates, Dartmouth faculty have independence in any research related to the institute, as stipulated by the founding gift agreement,” she wrote. “No donor directs the operations or administration of the institute, which is guided by Dartmouth’s standard of ethics, independence and academic freedom.”

The report outlined alleged examples of the Institute’s influence on research, including a statement by biology professor Caitlin Hicks-Pries, who said she had suffered from undue influence from a former Irving Institute staff member in her first Seed Grant from Irving.

In an email statement to The Dartmouth, Hicks-Pries, wrote that “this person no longer works for the Irving Institute” and that her “most recent seed grant from Irving went very well with no interference from the Institute.”

Though Beauvineau acknowledged that the Irving Institute faculty members with whom she and other members of Fossil Free Dartmouth spoke stated that they had never been influenced by the fossil fuel industry, she maintained that the “associations” between fossil fuel companies and the Institute are “alienating” because students are “skeptical” of the potential for influence.

“The call for ‘fossil free research’ is essentially a call for eliminating the risk of sponsorship bias and conflicts of interest going forward, in addition to the moral imperative of separating from the fossil fuel industry,” she said. 

In contrast, Dr. McLellan said he believes the transparent connections among the Irving Institute, Irving Oil and the Irving family increases accountability for the Institute and researchers working with it. 

“It creates pressure because of the spotlight by students, by faculty, and by society at large,” he said. “[It] puts pressure on the Institute to walk a straight line and to be prepared for the critique and be careful in terms of its ethical obligation.” 

Tuck School of Business professor Anant Sundaram, who also serves as a member of the Faculty Advisory Board, expressed skepticism at the report’s methodology. He called the report “speculative” and questioned the credibility of its conclusions. 

“I personally think that [the authors of] this report [ … ] should have done a campus survey first — send out a Qualtrics survey to professors, students, staff [to] try to get a sense of ‘Where do people stand on this?’” he said. “This is just impressionistic stuff that I’m not convinced even matters.”

However, both Sundaram and Dr. McLellan agreed that the Irving Institute’s methods allow for interdisciplinary climate research that outweighs potential negative consequences highlighted by the report. 

“We need all hands on deck to try to figure out a path forward,” McLellan said. “Much of [this] work has been done independently and in a siloed fashion. The goal here is to try to cross disciplines so that there’s a true understanding of how each other’s disciplines impacts each of the topics.”