DivestNU's encampment at Northeastern University earlier this fall.

Credit: Rowan Walrath

Fossil-Fuel Divestment Campaigns Hit Boston's College Campuses

December 29, 2016

“People gonna rise like the water, gonna calm this crisis down. I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter, saying, ‘Divest BU now!’”

Nearly 100 student activists shouted those words, among other chants, as they marched on Boston University’s campus Thursday, December 9, to deliver a petition to the BU board of trustees urging total divestment from fossil fuels. Divest BU, the coalition behind the petition, has been escalating its campaign since September, when the trustees issued a decision to avoid direct investments in coal and tar-sands extractors but stopped short of full divestment.

Divest BU was joined by allies from organizations like BU Student Government and Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as members of DivestNU, who have been leading a similar campaign at Northeastern University.

“We all came out here because we’re fighting climate change or we’re fighting social injustice or we’re fighting the lack of transparency from our administration,” said Nicolette Matsangos, a Divest BU member and junior in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).

The march ended at the John and Kathryn Silber Administrative Center on Silber Way, where a small group of Divest BU members walked inside and delivered the petition to Douglas Sears, BU president Robert Brown’s chief of staff.

“Make sure President Brown sees it,” urged Doruk Uzel, a CAS senior, as those delivering the petition were moved out of the building.

This is only the latest in a series of developments in climate-justice movements across the country. In Boston, several schools, including BU, Northeastern and Boston College, have seen student-led coalitions make strides in their campaigns during the fall 2016 semester. In early October, DivestNU members set up tents on Centennial Common at Northeastern, where they remained for 13 days to build pressure on school administrators. A few weeks later, Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC) held a rally on BC’s campus, chanting, “Invest in our future, not our demise.”

“Universities were built for students, not what they’ve developed into, which is research-focused and corporate and very large administrations,” said Divest BU member Rachel Eckles, a CAS senior, at a November 17 Divest BU meeting.

To activists like Eckles, if universities are made for students, they should listen to their students. And these students want their universities—large, influential institutions—to divest all holdings from fossil-fuel companies.

At Northeastern, DivestNU, a coalition of 30 student organizations as well as allied students, alumni, and faculty members, has been rapidly escalating its campaign since October. This began with an occupation of Centennial Common, which lasted nearly two weeks, and reached its zenith in a live-streamed interruption of president Joseph E. Aoun’s State of NU address.

However, according to co-founding member Austin Williams, DivestNU then chose to step back for a few weeks, planning instead for future actions.

“There’s a faculty budget that’s being finalized in December, and so we’ve decided not to ask departments to put themselves out very visibly at this point in time,” said Williams, a senior environmental studies and political science major. “We’re planning early next semester to sort of lay out a slate of departmental votes on the issue of divestment. We’re working with faculty who are members of the Faculty Senate to get that on the agenda and have a plan for raising this issue next semester.”

Additionally, DivestNU hopes to connect pro-divestment faculty members at Northeastern with faculty on other campuses, including BU, Brandeis University, and Harvard University.

On Tuesday, December 6, 11 students from DivestNU interrupted Aoun’s holiday party, which he holds at his house annually for trustees, donors, and other university community members. They caroled outside for two hours and delivered a bag of charcoal, saying that Aoun was on “the naughty list.”

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful / This climate ain’t delightful / And since Shell made this mess / Let’s divest, let’s divest, let’s divest,” the students sang to the tune of “Let it Snow.”

Farther west, at BC, student activists in CJBC have held a number of messaging campaigns and on-campus rallies.

“Basically, what we’ve worked on this semester so far is Breaking the Climate Silence,” CJBC member Klara Henry, a senior linguistics major at BC, said. “[That] is a recurring event we do where we stand in the quad holding signs but not speaking until the last day, when we do an educational debrief for any students who noticed us and have questions about climate change and divestment specifically.”

At Divest BU, students saw some of their largest actions in September in advance of the board of trustees’ decision on divestment. The university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing recommended full divestment, so Divest BU hoped the trustees would follow that proposal. However, the board’s decision was only partial: BU would avoid investing in coal and tar-sands extractors on a best-efforts basis, but “perfect implementation cannot be assured.”

“The decision that the board of trustees made in September was essentially a half-response to half a recommendation,” Divest BU secretary Masha Vernik, a CAS sophomore, said.

In an effort to continue building pressure on administrators, Divest BU launched a new campaign and petition on November 29, calling on the board to reconsider its decision. That petition was delivered to chief of staff Douglas Sears on December 8 following a rally and march.

The college movement in context

Although the environmental movement has been around for decades, divestment on college campuses has only picked up momentum over the last few years. Modeled after the movement that ultimately ended apartheid in South Africa, divestment today focuses on targeting large institutions—universities, governments, and NGOs—that hold economic and political influence.

According to Allyson Gross, communications coordinator with the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, for academic institutions, pulling out of the fossil-fuel industry is a political move.

“Institutions of higher education in the United States are uplifted as these places that value truth, that value knowledge, that are valorized in our society as big pillars of public understanding,” Gross said. “When we think about having and targeting these uplifted institutions in our society, to have Harvard, to have Yale, to have these private colleges and universities or public universities say that we will not engage with fossil fuels sends a larger message.”

David Shugar has been a divestment activist for a number of years. He led campaigns at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before moving on to As You Sow, where he led the creation of content for the ProgressDivest page. Now, he is a Human Impact + Profit (HIP) Investor, focusing on opportunities for shareholder activism.

“People think it’s either-or: either shareholder activism or divest. At the end of the day, they’re not mutually exclusive,” Shugar said. “For example, let’s say the company or university foundation can say, ‘OK, Chevron. These are our asks as a shareholder. … After three years, we’re going to divest.’ It can be shareholder activism as a vehicle to divest.”

Shugar’s stance is more moderate. He believes that while full divestment is nobly idealistic, it may be more practical to take a gradual approach. He also believes that there is a financial argument to be made: investments in coal are not beneficial to stock portfolios.

“Investment managers divest from things all the time,” Shugar said. “They say, ‘Oh, this company isn’t doing well. I’m going to switch my money.’ They don’t call that divesting. They call that rearranging their portfolio.”

However, not everyone agrees with Shugar’s ideas. Gross says that the divestment movement requires radicalism.

“I think shareholder advocacy is a thing people have found success with in other movements for change, but the thing about the fossil-fuel industry and the divestment movement is that the way the numbers are landing, we can’t ask Shell or BP or Exxon to change pieces of their business model,” Gross said. “We need them to stop doing business.”

Divestment activists at the university level have called the oil and gas industry “morally bankrupt.” To them, there is no way for fossil-fuel companies to change their business models to be beneficial to the environment or to humans in general.

“We do not want to participate in the entire business model of this company,” Gross said. “We, fundamentally as a society, need you to stop doing business. That’s not going to go over so well if you’re in a Shell meeting and you say, ‘We need you to stop existing.’”

At BC, climate activists may be taking the moderate approach. Henry says that CJBC is now considering narrowing its request of the BC board of trustees. Instead of asking the administration to divest from all fossil fuels, the group is looking to be more conciliatory, focusing instead on socially responsible investing in other areas and making allies in the Investment Club at BC.

Divestment, while an active movement in the Boston area, is part of a global vision for environmental justice. In campaigns, students find avenues to become leaders in the climate movement by influencing their academic institutions.

“The divestment movement isn’t localized on any one campus,” Williams said. “It really is a vibrant movement on college campuses throughout the United States as well as college campuses throughout the world with over 500 active campaigns in the U.S. alone.”

According to 350.org’s Fossil Free project, 35 educational institutions in the United States have divested from fossil fuels at some level. However, a total of 640 institutions, including NGOs and governments, have committed to divestment.

“I think for a number of reasons, the fossil-fuel divestment movement exploded, because one, it was a concrete way, for the first time, that the climate movement and especially students were able to isolate and identify a common enemy in the fossil fuel industry,” Gross said. “It’s a clear way of saying, ‘It’s not this amorphous problem, but ‘Here’s how we’re going to address it.’”

Presidential election results jar activists

One month ago, on November 9, Donald Trump shook American liberals in what Politico characterized as the “biggest upset in U.S. history.” Trump has called global warming a hoax perpetrated by China, and climate activists fear for his administration’s effects on the environment.

“I think that Trump’s election was really unexpected for a lot of student activists as well as for most folks who were following the election,” Williams said. “Definitely the student activists who are part of DivestNU, it took a pretty big toll … to know that America had elected a climate denier to the presidency. It definitely derailed us a little bit. We had to take some time to check in with folks and process the election.”

Trump’s election, along with his appointment of climate change deniers Myron Ebell and Scott Pruitt to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team and the EPA, respectively, has also driven climate justice activists to redouble their efforts.

“It’s definitely caused us to rethink our strategy and think about what it means to be a student involved in climate justice in the era of Donald Trump,” Williams said.

Student activists at CJBC have a similar mindset: now is a critical time to build backing and momentum for the divestment movement.

“We worked on the election a bit and are now mobilizing post-election by publishing an op-ed piece to one of our school publications and working on a statement about Trump to rally support, now more than ever, encouraging students to join our movement and really emphasizing our Jesuit commitment to ethical leadership, which clearly encompasses divestment and climate justice,” Henry said.

Henry worried that without a political impetus to divest from fossil fuel companies, BC will not consider divestment.

“A lot of people are now concerned that so many people in the Senate and Trump are climate change deniers, so that’s giving us more of an incentive to broaden the scope of what we do and make it more about politics and education outside of BC,” Henry said.

In its Facebook event advertising its first general meeting since Trump’s election, Divest BU called right now “a critical time in history for BU to take a stand.”

Time to move forward

At Northeastern, DivestNU is turning its focus toward a fact its members consider scandalous: Edward Galante, former vice president of ExxonMobil, is the current vice chair of Northeastern’s board of trustees. (On December 13, President-elect Trump nominated ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state.)

“We’re planning on next semester much more heavily going in on the Exxon angle, bringing some of the journalists who broke the story to campus,” Williams said. “One of the things some of our faculty members are working on is bringing a speaking campaign to campus next semester.”

Before the fall semester is over, however, Williams anticipates more demonstrations.

“We’re still building our pool of folks committed to direct action, doing some dorm storms [and] targeting the board of trustees,” Williams said. Part of that targeting included the climate-themed caroling outside Aoun’s holiday party on December 6.

Boston College made CJBC a registered student organization in September 2015, according to The Heights, the campus newspaper. According to Henry, CJBC made this transition mainly to avoid disciplinary action from the administration, which has strict regulations regarding on-campus activities. However, members of the group are now reconsidering that decision.

“We’re now starting to question, as a group, whether being a registered student organization is slowing us and preventing us from being radical or whether we should maintain a working relationship with school admin to get more support from other students, even if we’ve been shut down on every occasion we’ve attempted to bridge the gap between admin and our group, especially on the part of President [William] Leahy and the board of trustees,” Henry said.

Additionally, CJBC may soon be broadening its focus from pressuring BC to divest to campaigning for climate justice on a larger scale.

“We’re also trying to decide if we should focus more on broader political action, like having sustainability considered as a stronger factor in school rankings, increasing climate change outreach, etc., or if we should stick to our original mission of divestment,” Henry said.

Divest BU’s December 8 rally and march were a first step in a new campaign effort specifically targeting President Brown, with whom Vernik says students have had frustrations in the past.

“We decided this Monday that our means of bringing that decision back to the Board of Trustees is going to be through President Brown,” Vernik said. “We need to make sure it gets on the agenda somehow, because they’re not going to just talk about it if we say talk about it. We wanted to specifically target an individual who would demand that the issue of divestment is discussed at the upcoming board of trustees’ meeting.”

In addition to Brown, Divest BU is focusing on specific members of the Board of Trustees.

“We identified a lot of allies on the board of trustees who, basically, we assume are sympathetic with divestment because of information that we know about them and their past,” Vernik said. “There are social workers, there are faith leaders and people who have a history of activism.”

Vernik also said that the group wants to call out specific trustees who have “very clear ties to the fossil fuel industry”: Rajen Kilachand, Bippy Siegal, J. Kenneth Menges Jr., and Richard Godfrey.

Student activists fight a larger battle

Although divestment is largely a student-based movement, it finds its footing at universities not only across the Greater Boston Area, but also throughout the nation. As activists move forward, they look to their own universities as potential changemakers in a fight for the future of the planet.

“There’s a lot of strength in knowing that we’re not acting alone and knowing that this is a much broader movement for climate justice,” Williams said. “I think that when folks look at the fossil-fuel divestment movement, at times they become preoccupied with how many campuses have been turned to divest from fossil fuels. That’s the most visible way to measure the success of the movement.”

According to Williams, one of the greatest successes of Divest NU and the climate justice movement as a whole has been its role as a catalyst for new young activists.

“It’s created an opportunity to create a new generation of leaders … who see the way that political parties are not always at the forefront of these issues, and actually building the understanding for folks that in order to make progress in these issues, we need to be out at the forefront, pushing the margins,” Williams said.

Over the fall semester, divestment leaders at various Boston-area campuses have shown up to support each other at demonstrations and on social media. According to Henry, CJBC has branched out to climate justice activists at MIT and Harvard University.

“It really is a national and universal issue,” Henry said. “It’s great that people from all around are rallying behind it.”

This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.


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