Campus Divestment Fight Resonates in the East
350.orgAn online tool kit offers advice on how to organize a university divestment campaign.
For apartheid, it was universities in the West and Midwest that got the ball rolling. On the issue of Sudan and Darfur, the cause caught fire earliest at Ivy League schools. But for the latest college divestment movement, most of the action is unfolding at schools like Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Bowdoin, the University of New Hampshire, Tufts, Vassar and Swarthmore.
Five weeks into a full-court press, a quixotic campaign to persuade universities to rid their endowments of stock in fossil fuel companies seems to be striking the deepest chord on campuses in the Northeast, organizers report.
To highlight the role that fossil fuel emissions play in global warming, students at more than 100 colleges across the country are protesting the investment of their school’s endowment funds in large companies like Exxon, BP and Shell
Some of the groups have made gains earlier than they had expected.
Unity College in Maine, a small institution with an enrollment of just 578, responded in November by adopting a policy of working with its investment firm to minimize all holdings in coal, oil and gas stocks, for example.
“The trustees have looked at the college’s finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to make a stand,” Stephen Mulkey, the college president, wrote in a letter to other administrators.
Middlebury College in Vermont recently responded to students’ efforts by revealing that approximately 3.6 percent of its $900 million endowment is invested in fossil fuel, followed by a pledge from administrators to begin looking at divestment.
At Hampshire College in Massachusetts, the administration approved a policy of investing in environmentally responsible companies that it said would rid its portfolio of fossil fuel stocks.
Most administrations, however, have responded unfavorably or, at best, guardedly. At Harvard, where 72 percent favored divestment in a recent vote in which roughly half the student body turned out, the administration said it was not considering getting rid of fossil fuel stocks. In an editorial, the school newspaper warned about “the logic and practical ramifications of divestment.”
Organized by a grass-roots alliance including 350.org, the Responsible Endowments Coalition, the Energy Action Coalition, the Sierra Student Coalition and As You Sow, the movement has established an online home, called Fossil Free, that offers students an arsenal of organizational material. A divestment tool kit outlines a six-step plan for students looking to create a successful campus movement, digital petition links, templates and more.
Dan Jubelirer, a Tufts sophomore from Durham, N.C., said the technology had mostly been helpful for connecting an existing network, however. “While social media is great for amplifying their message, the success for the Tufts Divest for Our Future group mostly hinges on ‘old-school’ methods, such as word of mouth and in-person meetings,”‘ he said.
A group called Students for a Just and Stable Future oversees that digital network. At its last meeting, only seven of the 12 students attending were actually in the room. The other five were videoconferencing via Skype.
Of the 15 colleges that have chapters of that group on their campuses, 14 are in the Northeast. As the movement grows, student activists on the West Coast are intently watching and learning from the Northeastern contingent.
“I think it’s great that those schools on the East have gotten such an early start, and it’s interesting to see how their administrations are reacting,” said Meagan Tokunaga, a sophomore from Albany, Calif. who has been organizing divestment efforts there at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
Ms. Tokunaga recently led a candlelight march through the campus to deliver a letter for the presidents of all five Claremont Colleges demanding that they divest.
While many organizations have been pushing students to act, the most high-profile campaign is run by 350.org, led by the climate activist Bill McKibben. Last month he embarked on a “Do the Math” tour, scheduling campus rallies around the country at which he encourages students to organize.
In October, I attended a dry-run event that Mr. McKibben organized at the University of Vermont. He bluntly warned the students about what they might be in for. “Some of you will need to go to jail, and we will be there for you,” he said. “If you join this fight, it will be the most important thing.”
After the rally, some students said they felt moved to action, but others were hesitant.
“It sounds like a cool message and movement, but I don’t see myself going out on the lawn protesting,” said Matt Sanford, a sophomore from Stonington, Conn
Students who have signed on are weighing how far they are willing to go to push their administrations to take action.
“We think that the university is willing to work with us,” said Dan Cmejla, a junior from Sudbury, Mass., who also spoke at the University of Vermont event. “We don’t want to impugn the reputation of the university unless we absolutely have to.”