MUN faculty, students oppose president's support of offshore oil industry

A letter signed by 340 faculty, staff and students takes issue with Vianne Timmons's support for the oil and gas industry during a virtual news conference on May 26.

Open letter says support goes against university's climate change plans

Memorial University president Vianne Timmons says the relationship between Memorial University and the oil and gas industry is the reality, but adds MUN will also play an important role in moving toward clean energy. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

An open letter from several hundred students and faculty at Memorial University says president Vianne Timmons's support for the oil industry goes against commitments to fight climate change.

Timmons was part of a May 26 virtual news conference in support of the offshore oil and gas industry. The conference included political and industry leaders — including Premier Dwight Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady — who pleaded with the federal government to support the offshore sector.

During her own remarks, Timmons said the school is "very supportive" of the oil and gas industry, saying "so many of our engineers and faculty and students" are involved in the industry.

"If it's important to Newfoundland, it's important to Memorial University," she said.

Those who have signed the letter, which had more than 340 signatures as of Tuesday morning, say Timmons's comments go against the university's climate crisis pledge, which was signed by senior leaders in September after a protest involving hundreds of students on the St. John's campus.

Simon Hofman, a student at the Marine Institute working with the school's climate action coalition, said he was disappointed to hear Timmons's endorsement of the industry.

Marine Institute student Simon Hofman works with the Memorial University Climate Action Coalition. File photo. (CBC)

"It's a kind of bold move for the president to come out of this new position, carrying a lot of water for the fossil fuel industry at a time where there's so many people in the university community that have a serious problem with the way that's kind of going," he told The St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.

"Dealing with this sort of climate crisis requires us to think about these issues is a little bit differently. It is very disappointing to see the kind of open-ended support."

Josh Lepawsky, a geography professor and a faculty association executive, signed the letter, citing his concern for academic freedom at the university. Academic freedom is the concept of being able to teach and share ideas freely, even if they are inconvenient to corporate or political interests.

"Part of what the issue here is is that among what was said by president Timmons, it included the idea of continuing to build a dynamic oil and gas industry," Lepawsky said.

"There are plenty of researchers at Memorial University and elsewhere whose research shows quite clearly that it is not possible to continue to build oil and gas and remain within a livable envelope of climate and employment justice.

"There's a risk that this kind of open-ended support for the oil and gas industry voiced by the president may reduce or chill those who are critical of it, and that's an imposition on academic freedom."

'We do have a climate crisis': Timmons

On Tuesday, Timmons told CBC News she's pleased to see faculty, staff and students engaged in an important global issue, and she said MUN has a role to play over the next few decades in moving into clean energy.

"When I went on that news conference it was to describe the relationship between the oil and gas industry and Memorial University. And there is one, and I wanted to be able to give facts around that," she said.

"But we do have a climate crisis, and we must also work on research, teaching and service in that area to try and improve our processes around energy." 

In an open letter to Timmons, hundreds of students and faculty at Memorial University say her support for the oil industry goes against commitments to fight climate change. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

But Timmons would not go so far as to speculate on whether MUN will ever by completely divested from oil and gas.

"We live in this province, we are funded by this province, and I need to recognize that reality we're in," she said.

No strategy for 'green oil' in place, Hofman

During the news conference, Timmons said the university is especially interested in initiatives that can make the offshore oil sector more environmentally friendly. Hofman said that's possible, but more discussions needed to be had before an open endorsement came from the president.

"A lot of our strategic guidance at the university doesn't include things like sustainability and green technology," Hofman said. "When we talk about … 'environmentally conscious oil,' these are all done on a very ad-hoc basis, compared to other universities where they have large plans.

"It's important to be at that table, but we're still at such a level where the kind of green technology consciousness has such a small voice."

Both Hofman and Lepawsky credit Timmons for stepping into the public to advocate for the university, but they wish her message in this case had been broader.

"Instead of putting your neck out … almost lobbying for these multinational corporations that have a lot of money, you need to be out there asking the federal government for bailouts for your university," Hofman said. "Diversifying, encouraging academic integrity, to ask these more difficult questions."

Lepawsky said Memorial "has a huge role to play in designing the kind of shift in industry and economy that is necessary. Not only the immediate future, but certainly for the near- and medium-term future as well." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show and Mark Quinn