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Exxon in the classroom: how big oil money influences US universities

By Oliver Milman

Students at Princeton describe unease that Exxon employee had an office on campus, while dozens of universities have big oil links

The lecturer looked, and sounded, the part. Sporting a pale blue shirt and Princeton University ID badge, he had his own office on campus, a short stroll from the room where several dozen students were gathered to hear him confidently talk about the challenges in moving away from fossil fuels.

Tim Barckholtz is not a Princeton professor, however. He is a senior scientific adviser at ExxonMobil, the oil giant that has done so much to both perpetuate and downplay the climate crisis. Barckholtz, an affable figure who has fronted adverts for Exxon touting its emissions reduction research, spent around six months sitting in and contributing to lectures and research groups, based in his own office space at the elite university.

In September, with the university poised to cut its extensive ties with certain fossil-fuel companies including Exxon, Barckholtz even taught a class of engineering students on “negative emissions technologies”, during which, over pizza and soda, he criticized the divestment decision, warned that the transition away from oil and gas will be “very difficult” and that the unfolding climate emergency was “not our fault”.

“It’s hard for me to figure out who wins [from divestment],” Barckholtz told the class, a recording of it shows. “There are, like, 10 people who win. They are sleeping better at night, but technology is the loser.” Barckholtz then noted that Exxon makes the type of rubber that goes into most car tires. “Are all of the Princeton security cars going to go back to the Flintstones and have no tires?” he asked. “There are some parts of this they didn’t think through completely.”

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