Updated: Feb. 2, 2020 at 12:19 a.m.
University President Thomas LeBlanc said he “deeply apologizes” for comments he made in a video that surfaced Saturday that shows him comparing support for fossil fuel divestment to hypothetical support for shooting “all the black people here.”
In the video, which was posted to the Facebook page “Overheard at GW,” an individual who identified herself as a freshman asked LeBlanc about GW’s investments in fossil fuel companies and donations from the fossil fuel industry, which prompted LeBlanc to use an analogy that students condemned on social media. LeBlanc’s apology comes after the Student Association’s Black Senators’ Caucus published a statement characterizing his comments as “racially insensitive” and “thoughtless.”
“The Black Senators’ Caucus recognizes the manner in which this incident occurred as both a pattern of racially insensitive behavior on this campus as well as proof of the degree to which accountability and reasonable sensitivity are absent from this University – even at the highest and most visible level,” the caucus’ statement reads.
The student in the video, who Sunrise GW identified as a member of their organization, asked LeBlanc whether he would shut down GW’s Regulatory Studies Center – a research hub that receives funding from donors like ExxonMobil and has been criticized for a right-wing bent – if a majority of students agreed. LeBlanc rejected the idea that a majority vote mattered, adding that the decision to keep the center is an issue of academic freedom.
LeBlanc said majority rule should not guide every decision, likening a majority in support of shuttering the RSC to a hypothetical majority in favor of causing harm to African-Americans on campus.
“What if the majority of the students agreed to shoot all the black people here?” he said in the video. “Do I say, ‘Ah, well the majority voted?’ No.”
LeBlanc told The Hatchet in a statement Sunday that he did not intend to offend anyone by using the analogy.
“Yesterday, in a conversation with a student, I attempted to emphasize a point and used an insensitive example that I realize could be hurtful to members of our community,” LeBlanc said in an email. “I deeply apologize for using that example.”
He added that he intended to caution the student against using majority rule as justification for violating academic freedom.
“The point I was making – that majority rule should never suppress the human rights of others – was obscured by the example I used,” LeBlanc said. “I regret my choice of words and any harm I unintentionally inflicted on a community I value greatly.”
SA President SJ Matthews and Executive Vice President Amy Martin, who extended their office hours Sunday afternoon in the wake of the video, declined to comment, deferring to the statement issued by the black senators’ caucus.
Archer Gallivan, a sophomore who posted the video to the Facebook group, told The Hatchet the woman in the video declined to comment about the video.
The student in the video raised concerns to LeBlanc about the RSC’s donors, to which LeBlanc responded that he is not “crazy” about gifts from donors affiliated with the fossil fuel industry but added that he cannot shut the “legitimately constituted” academic center down without violating principles of academic freedom.
“Here at GW, you get to make your case and people get to listen to it, and agree with it, or disagree with it and make another case,” he said.
LeBlanc said in the video that he similarly did not respond to those asking him to fire law professor Jonathan Turley following his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee as a part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Overheard outside the Smith Center:LeBlanc comparing students wanting fossil fuel divestment to students wanting to “shoot all black people on campus” on the first day of Black history month (4:43)LeBlanc acknowledging the Regulatory Studies Center is an anti-regulation institution backed by fossil fuel interests despite their claim to be an “objective” and “unbiased” group. (3:04)LeBlanc saying climate change denial is a legitimate academic position and that he would welcome professors at GW who hold that view (3:12).LeBlanc acknowledging 3% of the endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry, which is almost 60 million dollars. (00:25)
Posted by Archer Gallivan on Saturday, February 1, 2020
LeBlanc also disclosed the scope of GW’s fossil fuel investments in the video for the first time.
He revealed that about 3 percent of the University’s investments are connected to fossil fuel companies through funds GW invests in. The University’s portfolio does not include any individual stocks issued by fossil fuel companies, LeBlanc said.
“We’re 97 percent carbon-free now, and we’re getting no credit for it,” he said in the video. “Everybody’s hammering us as if all we own is coal – we’re 97 percent carbon-free now.”
He added that officials are working with GW’s investment advisers to eliminate all remaining investments in fossil fuel companies and working with the Board of Trustees to develop a “statement of principle” by the end of the year that will explain GW’s vision for divestment in the next five to 10 years.
The video has received almost 130 comments as of Sunday afternoon, ranging from those defending the ideas he put forward, comments criticizing his choice of words and some messages calling on LeBlanc to resign.
Sunrise GW, a student-led environmental activism group that rebranded in November, published a statement Sunday condemning LeBlanc’s comments in the video. The group published a letter urging officials to cut ties with the center and divest from fossil fuel companies in late December, which the SA Senate backed last week in a resolution.
“Sunrise GW condemns in the strongest terms President LeBlanc’s racially insensitive comparison of students supporting fossil fuel divestment and basic academic integrity to the idea of student support for racial violence,” the group’s statement Sunday reads.