Op-ed submission: “We don’t have a democracy”: A response to Chancellor Wrighton

Alexandra Lindstrom, Jessie Thornton, Kristen Riedinger | Class of 2020 and 2019

On April 14, Fossil Free WashU met with Chancellor Wrighton for the second time this semester. For the past four years we’ve been asking Washington University’s administration to divest from the top 200 dirtiest fossil fuel companies. Fossil Free has finally been refused outright. We spoke with the Chancellor and his chief of staff, and while we may have received our answer, it was behind closed doors. Following this meeting, we have decided to release insights that reach beyond our campaign. As a group dedicated to voicing student concerns about the endowment and its implications, Fossil Free WashU feels obligated to share the following considerations with the greater University community.

Perhaps of most importance, Chancellor Wrighton has made it clear that students have no formal power to influence the financial decisions of the University. We are not considered stakeholders in the endowment–as corrected by the Chancellor, we’re “constituencies that are being served”. We can write op-eds, distribute petitions and present resolutions that speak to the interests and mission of the student body. However, the administration can choose to ignore our voices, trivialize our concerns, or wait for the calls for change to die out. No matter how active we are, the administration perceives us as passive recipients of its education. They seem to forget that it is our talent and ambition that establish Wash. U.’s reputation, and our initiatives  that the University touts as “leadership.” Apparently our contributions don’t matter, because “Even institutionally, the trustees own the University, in effect.” A University owned by its board of trustees has limited self-determination, with power concentrated in the hands of a few unelected and already exceedingly influential members. Our University is hosting alumni weekend in just a week: will all these generations know their donations are “owned” by trustees with vast conflicts of interest, charged with making the “best” decisions for the University?

Considering this structure, Wash. U. looks very different from inside the decision-makers’ offices than from inside the University’s halls—perhaps because our board members don’t represent Wash. U. at all. Instead of the values taught in our classrooms, our investors are obligated to optimize financial returns, regardless of and in spite of social impact. As stated by the Chancellor: “The paramount purpose of the endowment is to support the mission of the university…by building the best investment returns possible”. But what if our endowment directly conflicts with our mission, our ideals of active citizenship? We pride ourselves on holding presidential debates and bringing speakers to spark dialogue. Yet our students and faculty don’t have a say, as “we don’t have a democracy.”

Maybe right now, there is none: “Economic returns. That’s the covenant that we have with the donors”. Maybe we haven’t been granted a seat at the table, a true representation that constitutes a “covenant” with our University. Perhaps our hard-earned acceptances and tuition aren’t enough. The Board of Trustees could be “the only constituency that has that authority and responsibility” to make changes to the endowment. But we have no obligation to accept this arrangement.

If anything can be assured, it’s that student voices are important and present regardless of what value the administration assigns them; and we demand an audience regardless of its willingness to listen. We are community members at this University, we have a responsibility to influence the impacts of the University’s operations, and we will not let the administration reject our efforts. Despite a dismissal of divestment, Fossil Free WashU refuses to stop fighting for a more socially responsible endowment. We hope that this information will serve as a catalyst for greater student engagement and efforts for administrative accountability.

After all, who is our University? “Our” conveys inclusivity and agency, but the administration would prefer to co-opt the prestige, research, and leadership that we provide. Is Wash. U. not more than anything the people who attend it to learn, with their curiosity, views and questions, and professors that facilitate their education? Are we not a community of scholars, who strive to find strength through truth, to find answers to questions that have impact beyond our campus? When the scientific community comes to a consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, and the health community acknowledges that there are inherent risks in fossil fuel exposure, and the justice community points out that these impacts are not evenly distributed, do these truths hold no weight? Is there any strength behind these truths when we refuse responsibility for them?