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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Administration

Petition to remove Honor’s convocation speakers gains traction


| Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

An Honors College alumna has been collecting signatures to have two speakers who worked with Exxon Mobil and graduated from UH removed from speaking at the college’s fall convocation. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

A petition to have two Honors College convocation speakers removed has been making the rounds and racking up signatures online.

The petition calls for the removal and replacement of two alumni, Regent Gerald McElvy, past president of the Exxon Mobil Corp. Foundation, and Executive Adviser to the Chairman of Exxon Mobil April Feick, as speakers for the ceremony due to their current and past involvement with the oil and gas company.

Supporters of the petition said Exxon Mobil is furthering the destruction of the planet through global warming.

“It’s not about who they are as people,” said Katherine Fischer, a UH and Honor’s College alumna who graduated in 2016. “They represent a corporation who has made these choices.”

The petition currently has more than 200 signatures and was started two weeks before the Thursday convocation.

Current students, alumni and faculty have all signed or shown support for the petition, a distinction that Fischer noted as important. 

“I’ve spoken to a lot of faculty members who I expected to get their support and did not because they are privately willing to say, ‘yeah, this is wrong, we don’t like this,’ ” Fischer said. “But publicly they aren’t willing to put their necks on the line.”

Fischer sent the letter, along with the petition, to Honors College Dean William Monroe and the Office of the President. The responses she received were less than satisfactory, Fischer said.

In the email sent to Fischer from Monroe, the dean said he will not replace the speakers.

“Real universities do not disinvite visitors in response to outside pressure, or inside pressure for that matter,” Monroe said in the email. “To do so would be contrary to the nature and purpose of a free university.”

The dean told Fischer he thinks she went about this situation in the wrong way, and that instead of starting a petition there were many other ways to express her frustration with the decision, including calling him and explaining her concerns or writing an op-ed piece for a newspaper or social media outlet.

“I was the one who invited Regent McElvy and our alumna April Feick, and I am proud and happy that they agreed,” Monroe said. “They are both good people, as we used to say, and I would have been happy to discuss my reasoning with you if you had given me the chance.”

In a separate email to Fischer, Monroe elaborates on the idea that the speakers represent Exxon Mobil. He said he does not believe they represent the company, but instead, since they are alumni, represent the University as successful graduates.

“I don’t agree that either April or the regent is representing Exxon Mobil,” Monroe said in the email. “They are representing the University of Houston — or that my choice is an endorsement of their current or former employer, the church they go to, the political party they belong to, or any other affiliation they may have now or may have had in the past.”

In a statement from the University they elaborate by saying that UH is a place that allows discussion, debate and expression.

American universities are forums for expression, discussion and debate,” the statement said, “and to be true to their social mission, they cannot disinvite guests because the positions or affiliations of those guests may be objectionable to some members of the public or the University community.

The petition started when Fischer, a local political organizer, received an invite, as all Honors College alumni do, to the 2019 Fall Honors Convocation.

When she saw who the keynote speaker was Fischer messaged some of her friends she knew from college. She asked their opinions on it and if they wanted to do anything about it.

Fischer said her and other alumni friends decided to write one letter collectively, rather than send several, and that they began collecting signatures in mid-August.

The reason for the letter and petition is a multitude of things, Fischer said, including lawsuits against the company, a recent fire at an Exxon Mobil plant in Houston and past campaigns to stir uncertainty about the truth of global warming, all culminating in Exxon Mobil’s role in climate change.

“Exxon Mobil has definitively had a really huge and really negative impact on our specific community and the world,” Fischer said. “We don’t think it’s right that the University is bringing in two people… who represent this corporation.”

After receiving the response from Monroe, Fischer decided to stage a protest that will take place on the same day as the convocation.

She said there will be climate activists speaking, telling people what they can do to help stop climate change.

“We hope that this will be a peaceful and positive event that will show UH and the Honors College that youth mobilization is not ‘terrible’ and ‘petulant,’ ” Fischer said, quoting the first response she got from Monroe. 

In an email Fischer received Tuesday, Monroe suggested a panel about climate change at the Honors College in the next few weeks.

“We can certainly work with you on that,” Monroe said to Fischer.

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