As business people from both the University of Richmond campus and Richmond community made their way into the Jepson Alumni Center to hear Thomas Farrell, the CEO of Dominion Energy, speak, they passed two protesters standing in the parking lot, holding a banner that read, “Tom Farrell — Why do you put profit over people?”
Farrell engaged in a conversation with Richard Coughlan, associate professor of management, at this semester’s final C-Suite Conversation on Thursday, April 4.
C-Suite is a complimentary E. Claiborne Robins School of Business signature speaker series for students, alumni and the Richmond community, where a distinguished guest sits through an unscripted interview on-stage.
Before the conversation began, Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the business school, announced to the crowd that this C-Suite Conversation welcomed the largest audience to date, which is why the event was relocated from its usual Ukrop Auditorium to the more spacious Jepson Alumni Center.
About 10 minutes into the conversation, after Farrell discussed Dominion’s recent efforts in renewable energy, a loud, alarming noise startled the sizable crowd, and several protesters rose from their seats.
“I was sitting with my friends, and we were all so shocked, ” junior Rachael Glackin said.
“You should not be listening to this man!” one protester shouted. “He’s poisoned our waters, he’s poisoned our air. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Union Hill Compressor Station, The Navy Hill Development project, exploit communities of color for profit.”
According to the Dominion Energy website, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a proposed 600-mile interstate natural gas transmission pipeline that would serve multiple public utilities and their growing energy needs in Virginia and North Carolina.
Environmental organizations and justice groups like Sierra Club oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other fracked gas pipelines for reasons including that such pipelines can damage water quality, increase dependence on fracked gas, fragment more than 50 miles of National Forest Property and are subject to leakage and explosion causing further pollution, according to the Sierra Club website.
“The only people who benefit from the pipeline are Dominion shareholders and executives,” Caroline Bray, one of the protesters who disrupted the talk, said. “The most volatile and dangerous part of the pipeline is planned to be constructed in a historically black, elderly community called Union Hill.”
“Do not aspire to be like Tom Farrell,” another protester continued. “He does not care about the people of Virginia.”
The protesters, who are part of a group called The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, were escorted out of the event. As they were escorted out, they chanted, “No coliseum, no pipeline, people’s lives are on the line!”
“Coliseum” refers to The Navy Hill-Coliseum project, which Bray said was a plan to redevelop downtown Richmond to benefit businesses.
The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition is a grassroots organization of young people fighting for social justice in Virginia, Bray said.
“We organize to stop construction of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines, confront the rise of fascism and white supremacy, help to provide aid to immigrants, work towards food security, and more,” said Bray, who is also an action organizer at the organization.
Samantha Moore, Dominion Energy communications specialist, responded to an emailed request for a comment about the protest.
“Today’s C-Suite Conversation provided the opportunity for the University of Richmond community to hear from our Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer, Tom Farrell, about Dominion Energy’s sustainability goals and our commitment to reducing carbon and methane emissions-goals that are important to many in our society,” Moore wrote.
Glackin said she was shocked because she does not think UR's campus is one where she sees people actively protesting.
“This isn't a very politically active campus,” Glackin said, “so I was just surprised to see people standing up for a social issue so publicly. It was really refreshing.”
Farrell and Coughlan, who responded to the protesters directly by calling the C-Suite Conversation an educational event, resumed their conversation immediately. The two did not appear to be distracted as the protesters continued to chant outside of the building.
Although Farrell did not mention the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, he discussed his civic engagement in the Richmond community, and talked about working closely with non-profits and the city of Richmond to continue developing the city center.
“I believe strongly that you have to have a strong central urban core to make a region function,” Farrell said.
Farrell also said his key priority going into the next few years was to continue carrying out his company’s core values: safety, ethics, excellence, teamwork and embracing change.
At the end of the hour-long session, as is the case with most C-suite Conversations, the floor was not open for questions.
“We do not believe someone who perpetuates violence such as Farrell,” Bray said, “should have a platform to spread their ideas, which is what U of R gave him. That is why we felt the necessity to disrupt the event.”
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