Amidst a growing conversation about ethical investing at the College, several students demonstrated at a talk given by Olav Ljosne, senior manager for international operations for Shell Oil, at an event co-sponsored by the Vermont Council on World Affairs (VCWA) and the Rohatyn Center of Global Affairs on Thursday afternoon.
The talk was the second in a local series co-sponsored by the VCWA, which brings hundreds of international speakers to the green mountain state every year.
The first of the two events was a panel discussion held on Wednesday Nov. 14 at the University of Vermont. While the event was well attended, a group of protestors repeatedly interrupted the speakers, forcing the organizers to cancel the panel shortly after it began.
The group of nine who protested at Wednesday’s talk, reportedly affiliated with the Rising Tide Vermont (a Burlington-based activist group), read letters which had allegedly been written by Nigerians who have been affected by Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta, according to the Burlington Free Press.
At the College, Ljosne was permitted to speak unimpeded for approximately thirty minutes, but had his remarks bookended by the protests of several students.
Dr. Gail Stevenson, executive director of VCWA, initially introduced Ljosne, noting the speaker’s 20-year career with Shell and diplomatic service with the Norwegian Embassy in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Shortly thereafter, two students — Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’15 and Jay Saper ’13 — approached the podium and presented the Shell executive with a fake honorary degree “of Humane Letters” from the college.
The two students satirically praised Ljosne for “greenwashing” Shell’s corporate activities in a manner “consistent with the practices of Middlebury College.” In their comments they voiced a critique on the College’s own “greenwashing” activities, referencing specifically the College’s management of its $881 million endowment.
“The global community has seen how effective you have been in justifying human rights violations such as using deadly force to repress a growing movement in protest of Shell,” they said, referring to the oft-criticized record of the Dutch petroleum company in the Niger Delta.
“Middlebury has recently been accused of investing unethically — in companies like Shell — so we look to you now, more than ever, as we try to restore our reputation without actually changing our practices,” they said.
The two students were dressed in graduation gowns and made their remarks as “Pomp and Circumstance March” played in the background, having been switched on by another student at the side of the room.
Director of Rohatyn Center of Global Affairs, Tamar Mayer permitted the students to finish, before re-inviting Ljosne to the microphone.
“Thank you for welcoming me here, it’s been a very good day, a very interesting day,” Ljosne said.
“I also must say thank you for a very special welcome,” he said, referencing the two students who had taken their seats, “but I must say that the premise is something that I don’t accept.
During his presentation, Ljsone spoke of Shell’s positions on transparency, sustainable development and the “nexus between water, food and energy.”
“We need to reduce the CO2 emissions,” he said, “At the same time … we need to cover demand globally.”
Audience Members Push for Answers
In the question and answer session, students and faculty asked Ljsone pointed questions, referencing Shell’s human rights record, current Supreme Court case and corporate responsibility, before demonstrations occurred again.
During the session, the tone of the room shifted back and forth between students for and against the demonstrations.
Janet Bering ’13 prefaced a question on arctic drilling by stating that she was pleased that the executive had visited the college, knowing that, “many students were excited to come and to ask questions respectfully.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of Geography, Kasy McKinney, then asked Ljsone to reflect upon his personal experience working in Nigeria for five years as part of his 20-year career with Shell. She called the contemporary situation in the Niger Delta, a “tragic situation, in which Shell has played a major role.”
“Nigeria is an extremely complex society,” Ljsone responded. “It’s underdeveloped, [in a] tragically underdeveloped area of the world … the history of Nigeria is a complex one, and a very violent one.”
In his answer, Ljsone spoke of government corruption and conflicts between communities, and stated that he believed that oil companies are “losing between $5-8 billion per year” in products that are stolen and illegally channeled into markets.
“Do you think that Shell is able to take any responsibility for what has happened [in the Niger Delta]?” McKinney pressed.
“Shell is not taking responsibility for what is happening in Nigeria,” Ljsone said. “We take responsibility for what we are doing, what Shell is doing.”
Shortly thereafter, Amitai Ben-Abba ’15.5 and Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13.5, two of the students of the self-titled Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee, a group of students who served as the respondents in the recent public hearing for violations to the College Handbook, came to the center of the room to interrupt the question and answer session.
“Everything being said here is a lie,” said Ben-Abba. “We are surrounded by this deception … We are lying to ourselves … This person is whitewashing corporate war crimes against humanity. Are you hearing this noise?”
Scott Rowland ’12, a student member of the audience, then interrupted Ben-Abba.
“You’re the one making noise, and you’re an embarrassment to this college,” he said. “This is ridiculous.” To this, several students clapped.
Both Ben-Abba and Koplinka-Loehr fell to the floor in a visual representation of the deaths of the Nigerian people.
The question and answer session came to a close with an inquiry by one student about the hypothetical impact of colleges and universities divesting from fossil fuel companies.
“I don’t know if the campuses around the world are invested in shell or in any of the other oil companies,” Ljsone said. “The impact is very difficult for me to say anything about.”
Discussion Continues Following Lecture
Following the conclusion of the event, reactions were as polarized as the perspectives of the many who had participated in the dialogue.
Bree Baccaglini ’15, a student in McKinney’s “Geographic Perspectives on International Development” class, reflected on the event.
“The thrust of what we learned [in our class] was that Shell has destroyed Nigeria and its people,” she said, “and that there is a whole lot of rhetoric, which we just heard about, that kind of covers a lot of this up as sustainable development, and as the Niger Delta’s problem. That’s what we read and that’s what I buy into more than the corporate ‘throw your hands in the air’ kind of approach.”
“I thought that [the corporate rhetoric] would speak for itself … I agree with what [the student protestors] were saying but I wouldn’t want to lend my voice in a circumstance like that,” added Baccaglini.
Baccaglini concluded that, “Perhaps for people who didn’t know about this, it was instructive to have the opposite side, but I think that people who have any sort of background or any previous interest [would have known what Ljsone was going to say].
Rowland, the student who interrupted the student demonstrators, was much more critical of the protest.
“Unfortunately for the protestors, their behavior drew our focus away from the content of Mr. Ljones’s presentation, and onto themselves. Today we are debating the student’s actions and not the content of Mr. Ljsones speech,” said Rowland.
“Apparently the value of learning from someone with an alternative viewpoint is lost on some of my peers,” he said.
Bering, the student who had thanked Ljsone for coming to speak at the College, echoed Rowland’s remarks.
“I thought the student’s actions were really frustrating and inappropriate because it is rare on the Middlebury campus that we get to hear the perspective of an oil executive, and that perspective is not taught in our classes,” she said.
“By protesting him, [those students] didn’t allow for students who were genuinely interested in global energy issues to have a genuine conversation about more than just Nigeria,” added Bering.
Ashley Sandy ’11, director of international visitors at VCWA, explained that she was nervous before the event, having just witnessed the first of two discussions shut down at UVM, but was pleased the majority of students “listened respectfully” and that Ljsone was able to speak.
“At Middlebury it was clear that students had done their homework.There were a number of students with varying perspectives and many of them asked valuable questions of Mr. Ljsone. I think that they definitely benefitted from being able to discuss their issues with him. I was disappointed that a similar discussion wasn’t able to take place at UVM because of the behavior of the audience,” said Sandy.
“The students did their research. A few students might have called him a liar but they allowed him to speak, which is the only way to have constructive dialogue,” she said.
“As a VCWA representative I was nervous that Mr. Ljsone might not be able to speak,” said Sandy, “As a Midd alum at the end of it, I was very proud.”
According to Tamar Mayer, Director of the Rohatyn Center of Global Affairs the talk had been planned for eight months, and was scheduled with the intent of continuing to bring speakers with a diverse array of perspectives to campus.
“This is a place where everyone can speak,” she said.