Op-Ed: On the power of student voices: An update from Fossil Free WashU

Eddie Ives | Class of 2021

At halftime of the annual Harvard-Yale football game, hundreds of protesters stormed the field to call for their schools to divest their assets from fossil fuels. They wanted to join the University of California system, which has divested its $83 billion endowment/pension fund from fossil fuels, Stanford, which has divested from coal, and thousands of universities, governments and philanthropic endowments that have divested over $11 trillion in combined assets worldwide so far. The event received national coverage, and with it, plenty of controversies. While this may have been the most publicized divestment action to date, it was far from the first and its impact can only be fully understood with the broader context of the fossil fuel divestment movement. Coincidentally, this action occurred just after Fossil Free WashU’s most recent meeting with Chancellor Martin, a meeting that yielded significant progress.

For background, Fossil Free WashU advocates for the University to remove all investments in the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies to better align our university’s stated values and mission with our actions. The extraction, transportation and combustion of coal, oil and natural gas imperils the future of our planet and harms vulnerable people. To profit along with the companies responsible for such damage is a moral failure of a leading research institution like Washington University that has studied both the economic and social impacts of continued fossil fuel dependence.

Students and faculty alike have demonstrated widespread community support for divestment. Over 2,000 students and 100 faculty members have signed our petition and group members have written op-eds, letters and emails to show support. We have met with Chancellor Wrighton, Chancellor Martin and members of the Board of Trustees. Most notably, we have held over half a dozen rallies and disruptions on campus, often with more than 100 students and faculty present in support.

Empty promises for transparency were made and calls for divestment are routinely dismissed, making these protests a powerful tool to bring administrators back to the table. While this process can be frustrating and can at times seem futile, conversations have begun to lead to genuine progress towards a more transparent and just endowment. Days before the Harvard-Yale protest, we met with Chancellor Martin and Eric Upin, the executive board chair of the WashU Investment Management Company. While divestment was not the outcome, we had a productive dialogue and received some promising news about the state of our endowment. Martin promised that in the first quarter of 2020, two documents will be released: a statement of investment principles to be sent to all investment partners, and a public transparency report on what is in our endowment, broken down by sector. Transparency has long been an essential step towards divestment that acknowledges our right, as stakeholders in this university, to understand where the money that funds our education comes from.

Most notable was Chancellor Martin’s citing of the “groundswell of student support” for divestment as his reason to meet with us and commit to endowment transparency. We owe these successes to the students who show up on Friday mornings to march to Brookings Hall, to the professors and activists who speak at our rallies and to those of you who share our posts on Facebook, talk with your friends and family and otherwise help to spread the word about our endowment that profits off of climate destruction. However, the push for divestment is far from over. While we hope that the administration will follow through on promises of transparency, we have been let down before and will not stop until Wash. U. is completely divested.

Divestment is not the only movement to see recent progress. All non-student campus employees will see $15/hour wages in July 2021. Wash. U. will now offer free tuition to under-resourced local students. And now, hopefully, our endowment will be transparent within the next three months. None of these happened by accident or out of sheer goodwill by our administration. It took sacrifices and hard work by graduate and undergraduate students and community members who camped out for weeks in Brookings Quad, protestors who were arrested while voicing concerns to those in power and everyone else who fought to make these changes happen. While some success has been achieved, much remains to be done. Graduate workers are still not guaranteed a living wage. Wash. U. admissions are still not need-blind. Our endowment still invests in fossil fuels. Yet protests like the one undertaken by Harvard and Yale students continue to be a surefire tactic in getting the attention of, and ultimately a reaction from, those who would rather ignore student voices in favor of political expediency. We know that these protests will be as effective for Harvard and Yale in moving the discussion forward as they have been for us.

While protest can seem inconvenient and uncomfortable, the status quo of climate degradation will become exponentially more inconvenient the longer it remains unaddressed. Disrupt someone’s sporting event so a changing climate won’t.

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