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Worcester school, students reach accord on speaker

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 14, 2011

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Most graduating college seniors want nothing more than to plow through all the pomp and circumstance and get on with the celebrating.

But at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, students are holding a second graduation ceremony today to protest the school’s choice of commencement speaker, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, whose company they criticize for its environmental record.

In an unusual twist on the standard graduation dissent, a “counterpoint commencement’’ will feature Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute, a sustainability think tank, as its speaker.

The alternative ceremony will be held at the same site and begin one hour after the close of the regular graduation, marking a compromise between students who objected to Tillerson’s presence and administrators seeking to minimize disruption.

“The goal was to protect the integrity of the ceremony,’’ said Eileen Brangan Mell, a university spokeswoman.

Of the nearly 1,200 students graduating, 26 have told administrators they plan to skip the first part of the ceremony, through the end of Tillerson’s speech, before arriving. After he finishes, they will walk across the stage with the other graduates.

Students who are spearheading the protest said more graduates are unhappy that Tillerson is speaking and will wear green ribbons as a show of solidarity with those refusing to attend.

“We have a lot of people who didn’t want to miss the ceremony, but are not happy they are forced to listen to him,’’ said Guillaume Marceau, a member of Students for a Just and Stable Future, an environmental group.

Students said they expect at least 200 people to attend the alternative graduation, and they criticized ExxonMobil for its history of causing environmental damage and for funding groups skeptical of climate change.

“We felt betrayed that our academic institution would extend an honor to the CEO of a corporation whose behavior has been so thoroughly opposite to our values,’’ the group stated in a posting on a Facebook page for the alternative commencement.

Seniors had initially planned to walk out just before Tillerson’s speech, but were told by administrators they would not be allowed to return if they did so because it would be too disruptive.

After meeting with administrators, students agreed to the alternative ceremony.

“It was never was our intent to be disruptive,’’ Marceau said. “It was our intent to work together.’’

Students did not have a role in choosing Tillerson, who has close ties with the university. ExxonMobil has donated more than $1.3 million to the school, and has hired 31 graduates over the past decade.

A 1975 graduate, Michael J. Dolan, is the company’s senior vice president.

In announcing Tillerson as the commencement speaker, university president Dennis D. Berkey called Tillerson “one of this nation’s most successful business leaders, a recognized and respected authority on energy, a champion of science, technology, engineering and math education, and a friend to WPI.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.