Harvard affiliates renewed calls for Harvard Law School professor Jody L. Freeman to step down from her position on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips following newly surfaced emails between her and a Securities and Exchange Commission official.
After an open letter by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard last month called on Freeman to resign from the oil and natural gas company’s board, Harvard faculty and HLS students have also voiced their concerns about her relationship with ConocoPhillips.
Freeman, who is co-chair of Harvard’s Presidential Committee on Sustainability and founded the Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program, has sat on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips for more than a decade and chairs the company’s Public Policy and Sustainability Committee.
Last month, the Harvard Faculty for Divestment steering committee sent a letter to University President-elect Claudine Gay and Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability James H. Stock raising the question of a potential conflict-of-interest between Freeman’s “fiduciary responsibility” to ConocoPhillips and Harvard’s climate goals, the Guardian reported April 1.
In February, the Harvard Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability awarded one of its five inaugural climate research cluster grants to a project led by Freeman. According to the Guardian, the letter calls the awarding of this grant to Freeman into question.
“The Salata Institute asserts it ‘will not accept funds from, or partner with, any company that does not share the goal of moving our global economy away from fossil fuels,’” the letter reads, according to the Guardian. “We ask: why does this policy not exclude awarding funds to a board member of one of the world’s most intransigent fossil fuel merchants?”
In a statement on her personal website, Freeman wrote that she serves on ConocoPhillips’ board of directors because of her belief in “the value of broad engagement during the energy transition.”
“My role as an independent director on the board of ConocoPhillips is about helping to advance the transition to a low-carbon economy,” Freeman wrote. “I work in my role to help the company deliver on, and strengthen, its climate commitments.”
Freeman denied that the role creates a “conflict of interest” with her work at Harvard.
“My role on the board is entirely consistent with the other work I do — teaching, researching, writing, advising, and advocating for climate policy, at Harvard and elsewhere,” Freeman wrote. “I wear one hat — as an advocate for positive change to address the climate challenge.”
In an April 11 letter addressed to Freeman, 24 of her former students in the Law School Class of 2025 urged her to resign from her position on ConocoPhillips’ board of directors.
“We are disappointed and ashamed that ConocoPhillips is capitalizing on the Harvard Law School credential to legitimize and further its legacy of corporate profiteering and destruction,” the letter reads.
The students called on Freeman to “choose a different weapon in the fight against climate change” and to align herself with “allies who truly care about making progress, not profits.”
In the statement on her personal website, Freeman wrote that she views her role on the board as a vehicle for progress.
“From my seat at the board table, I participate candidly and forcefully in discussion, introducing an important perspective that otherwise would be missing. I press for solutions and progress,” Freeman wrote. “I believe that I make a positive difference, and if I did not, I would not do this work.”
The Guardian reported on April 6 that Freeman helped facilitate a meeting via email between ConocoPhillips and John C. Coates, then set to become the acting director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporate Finance.
In the emails, Freeman vouched for two ConocoPhillips executives and failed to disclose her position at the company in the emails, signing off as a Harvard law professor, the Guardian reported.
“ConocoPhillips is widely recognized as the oil and gas industry leader on climate related disclosure,” Freeman wrote according to the Guardian.
Phoebe G. Barr ’23-’24, an organizer for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard — which separately obtained copies of the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request — said the emails are evidence of a conflict of interest between Freeman’s role at ConocoPhillips and her position at Harvard.
“We see her actively working for ConocoPhillips and on ConocoPhillips side, and so we think that this is just a greater confirmation of the problem and the conflict of interest and the fact that ultimately, Jody Freeman is working for this oil company,” she said.
In a separate statement on her personal website published April 12, Freeman defended the emails.
“I did not request or initiate any meeting. John, my Harvard Law School colleague, when he was still at Harvard, asked me to connect him to people at the company as part of his process of gathering information from all stakeholders,” Freeman wrote.
“I responded to his request and connected him to the company, introducing him to knowledgeable people there, explaining who they were,” she added.
In a statement, Coates clarified that he knew about Freeman’s role at ConocoPhillips and that he initiated the conversation, adding that Freeman did not “lobby” him or other SEC officials.
ConocoPhillips did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Richard W. Painter ’84, the former chief ethics lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office, said in an interview that “it’s okay” to get additional compensation “as a director or consulting.”
“But there needs to be a firm boundary between the university role and the private consulting,” Painter said.
Richard J. Lazarus, an HLS environmental law professor, wrote in an email to The Crimson that he perceives “absolutely no conflict of interest” regarding Freeman’s position at ConocoPhillips.
“Based on my close observations of Professor Freeman’s work on climate issues over the past dozen years here at Harvard Law School, I perceive absolutely no conflict of interest,” he wrote.
“I have never once heard Jody bend her focus or any meaningful suggestion that her service on the CP Board has limited her dedication to that mission in any way,” Lazarus wrote. “This notion that she has instead become their mouthpiece is, with all due respect, nonsense.”
—Staff writer Sabrina R. Hu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sxbrinahhu.