Alumni support for fossil fuel divestment

Harry Alper, Arielle Klagsbrun, Molly Gott, Rachel Goldstein | Classes of 2011, 2012, 2014

Positive social change always comes from those outside the halls of power. In the history of social change on Washington University’s campus, progress has come from the determined efforts of students, campus workers and faculty. We are alumni who all worked against fossil fuel interests at Wash. U., and we support the work of Fossil Free WashU to divest our endowment from fossil fuels. We were frustrated and angered—but not surprised—when this past spring Chancellor Mark Wrighton rejected widespread calls from students and faculty to divest from fossil fuels.

We were not surprised because the administration has a clear record of collaboration with fossil fuel interests.
In 2008, Wrighton appointed two coal CEOs, from Peabody and Arch Coal, to the board of trustees—after their companies gave millions of dollars to fund University research that directly promotes coal. Visit yourself to read the coal industry marketing under a thin academic veneer.

Since 2008, students have fought back—year after year. We disrupted events on campus when coal CEOs spoke, we brought our actions to Peabody and Arch Coal headquarters and we had meetings with the University. We had lots of meetings. We had basically the same meeting every two years with every new generation of students. We met with administrators. We met with endowment managers. We met with professors who promote “clean coal.” And finally we met with the chancellor himself.

The meetings were a stalling pattern, meant to keep each class of students busy until they graduated. In 2014, Students Against Peabody occupied the area outside Brookings Hall for weeks. They demanded that Peabody Coal CEO, Greg Boyce, step down from the board of trustees. During the occupation, student organizers again met administrators and then the chancellor—but those meetings were different. Students came into those meetings from a position of strength. They were occupying the Brookings arch, disrupting campus and creating national media. So when they asked Wrighton if he had the power to remove Boyce from the board, he finally answered them clearly: “I can, but I won’t.” Students walked out of the meeting and continued the occupation. At the Wash. U. board of trustees meeting that May, students continued to protest. St. Louis County police arrived in riot gear and arrested seven students.

What happened next? Well, summer vacation. Students went home or graduated, the momentum died. Boyce remained on the board. Then last year he quietly quit, as did the CEO of Arch Coal. Although delayed, it was a victory earned by the Students Against Peabody and their brave, disruptive protests.

It’s been a few years now since Students Against Peabody staged their powerful protest. Fossil Free WashU has organized hard, and pushed the chancellor. Wrighton had the chance to divest and make a moral stand—but he didn’t. He had the chance to divest and make the school a leader among peer institutions—but he didn’t.

Wrighton said outright this spring that he will not divest—that regarding fossil fuels, “the investment policy will not be changed.”

Who could believe that, at this point, more meetings with well-spoken student leaders could change the heart of the chancellor? Of course not! He already told us that he made up his mind against divestment.

Only an escalation in tactics, similar to the protest of Students Against Peabody, will have a chance at winning divestment. Some will argue that Students Against Peabody is now a dirty word in Brookings Hall. They may say that, if Fossil Free WashU adopts such disruptive tactics, the chancellor will be mad, and will not want to meet with us.

If your priority is to have polite meetings with the chancellor, you can be guaranteed many polite meetings, over many years, with no victory in sight for divestment.

If your priority is to divest the endowment from fossil fuels—and stop Wash. U.’s profiting from climate change—then your only choice remaining is to protest in disruptive ways.

There is a long, and often forgotten, history of disruptive and effective protest at Wash. U. Students Against Peabody successfully removed two coal baron board members.

Search the Student Life archives to read about the Student Worker Alliance. In the spring of 2005, students occupied the Admissions Office in Brookings Hall for 19 days, demanding living wages for campus workers. The administration agreed under pressure, and committed half a million dollars in the next year to raise the wages of the lowest paid workers on campus.

Dig through the Library Archives for documents from the 1968 protest and occupation by the Association of Black Collegians, who called for the creation of a Black Studies Program, and demanded justice for a black student who had been beaten by University police. After eight days of occupying Brookings, the Association of Black Collegians won their demands.

This history of disruptive action makes us proud to call Washington University our alma mater. In our current political environment, there is nothing we need more than disruptive action challenging the status quo and ensuring our University lives up to our values—even as our federal and state governments do not.

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