For years, the lecture hall at the base of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences building has been known rather prosaically as 54-100. But MIT’s decision to rename it Shell Auditorium — after the energy giant, a major donor — has ignited a backlash among students and environmental activists.
The auditorium, the first room that most students encounter after climbing several flights of stairs in a building designed by the famed architect I.M. Pei, is among MIT’s largest lecture spaces. The building, known as the Green building, is home to the university’s geologists, planetary scientists, and oceanographers. Many of the faculty and graduate students in the department study climate science.
Naming the main auditorium after Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which has historically backed climate change skepticism and remains heavily invested in oil and gas, sends the wrong message, said Catherine Wilka, 29, a doctoral candidate at MIT studying climate, physics, and chemistry.
“When you put a name of someone or something on the building, it becomes a statement of the values and priorities of the department,” Wilka said. “It feels to me that the administration cares more about oil money than the integrity of the science that is done in the building.”
The name Shell Auditorium has added to an already heated debate about whom the university should take money from and how to honor gifts.
The campus has been in an uproar this fall over donations from a disgraced financier and convicted sex offender, the late Jeffrey Epstein; revelations about his gifts led to several resignations.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also faced criticism last year for taking money from the Saudi government after the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was linked to the brutal killing of a journalist who wrote for the Washington Post.
After the Epstein scandal, MIT formed two committees to review how the university accepts and solicits gifts.
The Shell gift is part of the more than $30 million that the university has raised for the $60 million renovation of the Green Building and construction of a new earth and environment pavilion.
MIT officials declined to say how much Shell contributed, but several students said they were told by department officials that the oil company gave $3 million for the project.
“I appreciate that Shell stepped forward to support the renovation of the lecture hall and, in doing so, MIT’s commitment to education,” said Robert van der Hilst, head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.
“This project brings us closer to creating a vibrant hub on campus for interdisciplinary earth and environmental sciences programs and action.”
Shell has had extensive ties to MIT for more than two decades. In 2010, the company announced it would spend $25 million over five years on research and development of sustainable energy technologies. Last year, the company worked with MIT to develop its “sky scenario,” which outlined how to get to a future where emissions are at net-zero by 2070.
Shell has also contributed to MIT’s research on how climate change will disrupt transportation, said Curtis Smith, a company spokesman.
But Shell has also funded research at MIT on energy exploration and production.
“We’re proud of our relationship with MIT and look forward to continuing a partnership that advances society’s understanding of the most important issue of our time,” Smith said.
Deepa Rao, 29, who earned her undergraduate degree at MIT and is now there to complete a doctoral degree in oceanography, said Shell gets credit for tackling climate change in recent years.
This year, Shell left the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers lobby over the group’s lack of support for the Paris climate accord. But the company is also being sued by environmental groups and the State of Rhode Island over its alleged failure to address climate change, despite knowing about problems for decades.
By putting Shell’s name on a frequently used auditorium on campus, MIT is allowing the company to boost its environmental reputation, Rao said.
It also helps to inoculate the energy company from criticism that it isn’t doing enough to address climate change, she said.
It’s a classic example of “greenwashing,” Rao said, referring to the criticism that energy companies give money to environmental causes to divert attention from their otherwise questionable track records.
Rao is among a group of students who have organized a teach-in on Monday at MIT about greenwashing and the renaming of the auditorium.
Across the country, universities are facing questions from people on and off campus about the money they take. Many are reconsidering their gift policies and practices.
But as federal funding for research and development has declined, universities have become more reliant on gifts from companies and other private donors. Those funds often come with complex ethical questions, though.
Some higher education administrators and faculty have argued that as long as private money is used to pay for projects that benefit society more broadly, as well as students on a campus, the source of the money shouldn’t be an issue.
But as Epstein’s financial ties to MIT illustrated, there can be unexpected consequences of these relationships. Many women said they felt uncomfortable receiving Epstein funding or felt shut out of science because he was involved in backing the work.
Environmental activists acknowledge that Shell’s money will help improve the facilities and the learning environment for MIT’s students.
But, Rao asked, what is MIT trading for that money, and is it appropriate?
The university’s decision to rename the auditorium to recognize Shell should have been discussed more broadly with faculty and students, she said. Most students found out about the move when it was briefly mentioned in a late-August news release from the university, she said.
“We’re trying to make sure this perspective is heard, because we were surprised to hear the news that the auditorium would be renamed,” Rao said. “Most of us have woken up to where the money is coming from.”