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Ivies have refused to cut ties with top companies that have caused a third of the world’s carbon emissions—including ExxonMobil and BP. Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton may come close to changing that this year. How did they get here?

As the most recent step in a years-long battle, faculty and student activists stood in front of an official University advisory committee last Wednesday to call for Columbia’s divestment from all companies “primarily in the fossil fuel and extraction business.”

The group’s efforts are not new: In the past five years, students occupied Low, staged dozens of rallies, held a hunger strike, and collected over 100 faculty signatures for the same cause. If Wednesday’s proposal is accepted by the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, it will move to the University’s board of trustees, who will decide if Columbia will be the first Ivy League university to fully divest from fossil fuels.

Despite students’ repeated calls that Columbia has not taken a strong enough stance on divestment, Columbia has most consistently received responses from the administration compared to the calls that echoed around the Ivy League. Proposals have all been rejected, and at best partially accepted. In 2017, Columbia’s board of trustees voted to divest from thermal coal producers, becoming the only other Ivy—alongside Yale, which divested $10 million of its endowment from fossil fuel producers in 2016—to agree to partial divestment.

Meanwhile, other institutions, such as Brown, said “no” once and have since refused to budge.

“Nope. Nope. We rejected that,” Brown President Christina Paxson said when asked about Brown’s stance on divestment at a conference in February 2019.

As the pushback continues, student groups have steadily mobilized across the country on a national stage. In recent months, a number of faculties have also responded in support, none more prominently than at Harvard where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted 179-20 in favor of divestment. At Cornell, the faculty senate awaits a vote on March 11. At Princeton, alumni are up in arms to withhold donations. Administrators face renewed pressures in leading their institution into the status of global leadership.

Many justified their refusals by touting sustainability practices to address their role in the fight against climate change. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia all aim to become carbon neutral around the year 2050. Students argue that institutions could do more than promote reusable water bottles and place deadlines for carbon neutrality, given their multi-billion dollar endowments.

Now, all Ivies except for the University of Pennsylvania and Brown are evaluating proposals for fossil fuel divestment, despite the fact that all had previously rejected the idea of complete divestment. Read below to see how movements at each Ivy League got to where they are today.


Where the push started

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Students at Harvard proved in a 2012 referendum vote that 72 percent of the student body was in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Environmental activist group Divest Harvard met with the Harvard Corporation’s committee twice over their lack of action, even going so far as to publish an open letter to former President Drew G. Faust with 1,300 pro-divestment petition signatures.

Motivated by the momentum of the People’s Climate March, the University of Pennsylvania’s campus was ready to call for divestment in 2015. That year, the student group Fossil Free Penn hosted a rally and demonstrated at an open forum, leading up to a referendum where 87.8 percent of voting students were in favor of divestment.

The University Council Steering Committee secured the “green light” and announced the creation of an ad hoc committee to further consider the potential of divestment. The committee—which is comprised of students, faculty, staff, and alumni—would be hand-picked by David Cohen, the chair of the board of trustees, who students criticized for being “biased.”

Students at both universities would hear a resounding “no.” Faust said it was neither “warranted or wise” to divest from fossil fuel industries.

The high “bar” of moral evil was not high enough for Penn to divest, explained the board of directors. In 2015, Cornell would similarly say that fossil fuel companies were not “morally reprehensible” enough to warrant divestment.

What would be “morally reprehensible” action would cause the University to revisit the possibility of divestment? Cornell said that a company’s involvement with “apartheid, genocide, human trafficking, slavery or systemic cruelty to children, including violation of child labor laws.”

In 2013, when Paxson rejected Brown Divest Coal’s proposal to divest from the coal industry, she said the divesting proposal was “over.” To this day, she has not considered another proposal.

Paxson argued that Brown’s holdings were so small that divestment would not have an influence on climate change. The university’s investments are unknown and were unreleased “on principles rather than dollar amounts.”

Despite the pattern of refusals, including the University’s rejection of a divestment proposal in 2013, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice still felt a glimmer of hope when it received an emailed agreement from University President Lee Bollinger to address fossil fuel divestment, seven days after the beginning of its week-long occupation of Low Library in 2016.

Shortly after, Columbia announced a divestment from thermal coal companies in 2017, which was only a portion of the fossil fuel companies with which CDCJ demanded the University cut ties.

Only students at Yale have seen similar success as the University turned on its word. In 2014, Yale rejected Fossil Free Yale’s proposal to divest from the same companies he later said were “inconsistent with our principles.”

Yale previously only requested that their external manager do “the right thing,” but in 2016, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer David Swenson stated that the university would divest from three companies that constituted an estimated $10 million of the total endowment from coal and oil investments

“It was motivated from the right thing to do from an investment perspective,” the letter said, according to the Yale Daily News. “The bottom line is that if Yale’s managers do not act in a manner that is consistent with the University’s goals, Yale will terminate the relationship.”

The same year, Yale rejected student calls to divest from ExxonMobil, stating that there was no reason that the company should not be targeted from the fossil fuel industry. ExxonMobil is the largest oil company in the world and in a highly-controversial documented relationship with climate-denying lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council. The number of ExxonMobil shares that Yale currently owns is unknown.

“[Exxon] seems to be certainly no worse than any other fossil fuel company, with respect to their position on climate change. Exxon does support ALEC, but that does not provide sufficient ground for divestment,” chair of the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility Jonathan Macey said to the Yale Daily News.

Princeton University has only publicly declared divestment twice: once from South Africa in 1987, almost four decades after the first apartheid law was enforced. The other time was in 2006 with regard to the Darfur conflict.

“[Princeton is] often not a leader when it comes to divestment decisions, they look to other universities. We are not in a university that has any sort of track record with lead on divestment,” Tom Taylor, graduate student and member of Divest Princeton, said.

Its calls to divest from fossil fuels started in 2014 under the direction of the student organization Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative, which was ultimately halted by a single provision that would make the cost of divestment too large to consider. According to the divestment policy, Princeton would have to “disassociate” from these companies, meaning that it could not accept donations either. Further, Princeton’s climate change initiatives—funded by BP’s $43 million and ExxonMobil’s $6.7 million donations—would have to disappear.

“We agree to use and manage [donor] gifts to advance Princeton’s educational mission, not to make political statements,” Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in a 2017 statement.


Ongoing activism

In response to Faust’s 2014 statement, Divest Harvard—which had then changed its name to Harvard Climate Justice Coalition—filed a lawsuit demanding that the university divest from fossil fuels. Though the suit was dismissed shortly after, it was the beginning of a larger wave of student activism. In the coming years, Harvard Climate Justice Coalition would organize the largest demonstration in the university’s history.

Calls to action arose in the absence of appropriate administrative response. Harvard said that it would not invest in oil, minerals, and natural gas following a student blockage in 2017—frustrating many to find out it was temporary. Faust failed to address the University’s stance on divestment when announcing goals for a fossil-fuel-free campus by 2050.

The urgency of the student body remained the same, as evidence by referendum proving that 71 percent of the student body—which is almost unchanged from the 2012 vote—were pro-divestment.

In light of further lack of response from the administration, hundreds of activists decided to storm the football field at the annual Harvard-Yale game last November, leading to arrests of 50 dissenters and spurring international news coverage of the student fight for divestment.

Yasmine Akki

When FFP coordinator Emma Glasser arrived on campus at Penn in 2018, the organization tried their shot at success by narrowing the divestment target to coal and tar sand. Before the proposal could reach the desk of Cohen, it was rejected for being “too similar to the former,” Glasser said.

Without access to the board of directors, FFP organized a shutdown of almost 100 people at the board of directors meeting in late 2019.

As Divest Dartmouth grows more visible on its secluded New Hampshire campus, it has partnered with the Sunrise Movement, organized climate strike walkouts, and even sent Valentine’s Day cards to the board of trustees that said things like, “break up with fossil fuels.” Senior Alexander Miller recognized that in addition to the organization’s efforts, Dartmouth’s upcoming four-year capital campaign and the increasing mobilization from peer institutions are other factors that may accelerate the timeline of divestment.

Its job is clear: to prove that divestment from companies that profited and supported inaccurate climate science is not a “slippery slope” to “divesting from everything,” as Miller said that administrators fear for Dartmouth’s financial stability. Even if Dartmouth could do without the $80 million from Irving Oil that funded its energy institute, it would likely be less willing to follow suit with private prisons, Israel, and other prominent divestment movements at the loss of their academic resources.

“[Dartmouth] is being muzzled by the source,” he explained in reference to donations from fossil fuel companies. “[According to administration], we can’t bite the hand that feeds us, even if the hand that feeds us is oil-barring weirdly enough.”

Miller is the only senior that is actively involved in Divest Dartmouth while the “bulk of the work” is done by first-years and sophomores, who he believes have been impacted by the #MeToo and March for Our Lives era. Even their alumni base is fairly young, with some of the oldest having yet to finish graduate schools.

Though CDCJ has since phased out, the Columbia/Barnard Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion at Columbia are part of nationwide activism networks. Recent moves include the push for Bollinger to sign the United Nations’ declaration of a climate emergency and commit to carbon neutrality by 2035 and a week-long hunger strike, both receiving widespread support from students, faculty, and alumni.

Meanwhile, Columbia says that it has long-term plans to pursue sustainability. The University has promised a more comprehensive sustainability plan by 2020, created a Climate Change Task Force, and even announced plans to open a climate school.

In December 2019, Climate Justice Cornell threatened Cornell with public disruption if it failed to cut ties with fossil fuel industries before Feb. 13. Unless all five governing assemblies—including Employee Assembly, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, University Assembly, and Student Assembly—accept the proposal, then it can not move forward for consideration. The only person who can override this policy is President Martha E. Pollack.

This past week, there has been a surge in activism at Cornell in correspondence with Global Divestment Day. Students stood in solidarity with demonstrations protesting the construction of the TransCanada Corp.’s Coastal GasLink pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land, where 12 protesters were arrested in downtown Ithaca. Dozens of CJC protesters blocked traffic for several hours as they staged a mock wedding between the university and the fossil fuel industry.

“The average person is more willing to accept climate change is a real and present danger than was true five years ago,” Cornell professor Robert Howarth said to the Cornell Daily Sun.


Where universities stand today

The Brown Daily Herald reports that the university has no on-going fossil fuel divestment campaign, as the divestment movement is characterized as “quiet.” Instead, students have shifted to supporting local and state-wide initiatives, such as the Green New Deal.

As a result, Brown affiliates drafted and aided the passage of the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 to reduce 80 percent of emissions to pre-1990 levels before the end of 2050.

Activists at Penn have also not seen a response. The attention received from FPP’s board of trustees meeting shut down led President Amy Gutmann to send updates to climate change fighting initiatives earlier this month. Among them was that Penn does not and will not hold direct investments in coal or tar sand industries—the exact request from the FPP proposal Penn refused to review.

Administrators clarified to the Daily Pennsylvanian that the statement was not a divestment announcement, though students had not been notified prior.

“[This] is what we asked for,” Glasser said in regards to the divestment update. “We started the weekly protest fossil-free Fridays. We sit in front of College Hall demanding that they get a town hall. We changed the common sense on this campus to a pro-divestment mindset and we will continue until they divest.”

Moving forward, FFP has demanded a town hall in response to its ongoing difficulties to access the administration. Glasser added, “One day they are going to divest, our job is to make it happen faster.”

Taking a page out of Barnard’s campaign, which resulted in the divestment from climate change deniers, coal and tar sands in 2017, Divest Dartmouth is currently in conversation with President Philip J. Hanlon and chief financial officer Michael Wagner to create an exploratory committee that will determine how Dartmouth could potentially divest. As the conditions become more dire and institutions like Barnard gain key victories, Miller said that their strategy more precisely “leverages” the sensitive structures of Dartmouth in order to achieve divestment.

Seeing alumni return for rallies and demonstrations, he is reminded of the importance of remaining engaged in the divestment mission to fight climate change outside of campus activism.

“It’s important that we keep an eye on future employers and make sure that we are working for people with values, with actual values, and that’s a hard process. Divestment is not just an issue for the university. If [universities] are all that people are thinking about, it's not productive,” Miller said.

Following the vote from the largest faculty body at Harvard in 2020, President Lawrence Bacow is set to present a divestment proposal to the Harvard Management Corporation. While the timeline from there is unknown, Harvard Climate Justice Coalition member Jordan Barton said that divestment can’t wait. The group demands divestment by Earth Day, April 22, 2020.

“Harvard has a very short window of time frame. For them to remain intellectual and social leaders, they are going to have to get on board. Harvard tied themselves and operated on the premise of social leadership,” Barton said.

Recently, the Yale Daily News investigation on the university’s $78 million investment in Antero Resources sparked widespread criticism. Since 2011, the company has committed 14 environmental violations and accumulated up over $1 million in penalties.

However, even with the attention received from the Yale-Harvard game protest back in November, which represented a pivotal change in the nation’s common sense, Swensen’s mind seemed to be set. Yale requested that endowment managers invest the university’s money into climate-change-conscious companies, but would not favor divestment.

Following continuing student pushback, the possibility for a faculty resolution arose. In three days, two student activists will each have two minutes to argue their case for divestment against Swensen. The faculty senate will then discuss whether divestment is an ethical obligation for the remaining 90 minutes.

The Cornell Faculty Senate will also vote on the resolution to divest on March 11. If all of the governing bodies pass the resolution, then the board of trustees will address fossil fuel divestment again at its March 20 meeting.

Last Thursday, Divest Princeton submitted another fossil fuel divestment proposal. A committee would have to consider the proposal to be eligible for review by the Princeton University Investment Company and the university’s board of trustees. Taylor said that administrators suggested that by March the committee will decide if to move forward with the decision.

Meanwhile, two alumni started a petition that has garnered 800 signatures of fellow alumni pledging to withhold their donations until Princeton officially divests. Taylor said that because of Princeton’s small alumni network and highest rates of alumni donations, the growing number of signatures could become consequential. The current number of students enrolled at Columbia represent almost a third of Princeton living alumni.

“What we want to do is that this is clearly important to alumni, and even despite the allegiance or love for the university, this is something that is more important to them,” Taylor said.

Columbia’s ACSRI is currently considering a proposal presented by faculty and students from Extinction Rebellion. Abby Schroering, GSAS ’23, said that it was clear that the committee was conscious of the environmental concerns and therefore sympathetic to the “ends and means” of divestment.

“We did not know what to expect going in. We played down the argument to lay. We brainstorm every counterargument. Almost none of that proved necessary,” Schroering said.

While the decision’s ambiguous timeline concerns members of the group, they remember that anything could happen. Michael Cusack, TC ’21, notes that none of the committee members who rejected proposals in the past are still on the committee.

News Editor Valeria Escobar can be contacted at valeria.escobar@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

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