University of Pittsburgh's Class of 2024 Boo Ex-Steel Exec John Surma During Graduation

The retired fuel exec didn't receive a warm welcome from Pitt grads.

Lauren Wellbank - Author
By

May 3 2024, Published 12:33 p.m. ET

John Surma
Source: pittofficial/YouTube

The Petersen Events Center erupted into boos during the commencement ceremony for the University of Pittsburgh's class of 2024. No, students weren't upset about leaving the institute of higher learning, but instead, they were expressing their unhappiness with one of the event's speakers.

John Surma created quite the controversy when it was announced that the retired U.S. Steel CEO was slated to speak at the graduation, thanks to his ongoing ties with fossil fuel companies.

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For his part, Surma seemed to take the loud boos in stride, delivering his speech with enthusiasm despite getting instant feedback on his comments from those gathered in the crowd. Dive into the story behind Surma's cold reception by reading more about the former steel exec below.

Petersen Events Center
Source: Getty Images
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Who is John Surma?

According to his bio on the Public Service Electric & Gas website, Surma served as the CEO of the U.S. Steel Corporation from 2004 to 2013. While Surma has since retired, he hasn't left the industry he worked so hard for over the years. Surma spends his days sitting on several committees, including serving as the chairman of Marathon Petroleum Corporation, which operates the largest oil refining system in the country.

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John Surma spoke at Pitt's commencement, a controversial choice that sparked backlash from the student body.

Surma's ongoing ties to the fossil fuel industry were not well received by Pitt students, and they began protesting the former steel exec almost as soon as he was announced as a commencement speaker on April 18, 2024.

According to The Pitt News, students gathered ahead of the end-of-year celebration to demand that the university divest from the fossil fuel industry.

A Redditor shared a video from the speech, highlighting how widespread the boos were. User @JacksSmerkingRevenge said there were several parts of the speech that seemed to upset graduates, including when Surma talked about taking credit for other people's work. But, the thing that seemed to generate the most outrage had to do with the moment the former steel exec began talking about climate change.

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It sounded like many students bristled over comments that they could work together as individuals to make a difference when some of the companies Surma worked for (and continues to work on behalf of) are among the biggest contributors to climate change. The Redditor said that "many" were angered by the hypocrisy, including teachers and students.

Man in a suit and tie speaking into a microphone with a bottle of water in front of him.
Source: Getty Images

John P. Surma testifying before the House in 2009.

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As for university leadership, it's hard to know how they want to proceed with their relationship with the fossil fuel industry after being called to focus on the "three D's" (which include divesting, dissociating, and decarbonizing) during the protest ahead of the graduation ceremony.

With donors like Surma giving millions of dollars to the university — Surma and his wife gave the school a million dollars in 2012 according to the Pitt Chronicle, and a 2017 report reviewed by Public Source revealed that around 18 percent of their funds were derived from companies with a focus in the fossil fuel industry — it looks like at least one of those three D's is still a long way off.

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