Former Peabody executive resigns from board, activists react
After years of agitation from the Washington University community for the removal of coal executives from the board of trustees—which culminated in a 16-day occupation conducted by WashU Students Against Peabody in the spring of 2014 and led to seven student arrests at a rally outside of a board of trustees meeting—activists can finally claim some victory. However, Fossil Free WashU will continue to push for full divestment from fossil fuels.
For the last four years, Fossil Free WashU, a student movement organized by Green Action, has been working with the student body, faculty and administration towards divestment, endowment reform and transparency of the endowment.
Greg Boyce, the former CEO of Peabody Energy, was re-elected to the board in May 2015 despite vocal student opposition and national news media coverage, but according to a Feb. 7 press release, he abruptly resigned from his position on the board of trustees Nov. 30, 2016. This also coincided with end of the second term of former Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer on June 30, 2016, who was not re-elected.
History of Washington University and coal
St. Louis-based Peabody Energy is the largest private sector coal extraction company in the world. Former CEO Greg Boyce joined the board of trustees in July 2009, but the University has had ties to the industry going as far back as the 1990s, according to Bret Gustafson, associate professor of sociocultural anthropology. Gustafson explained that the Weidenbaum Center, a public affairs research center at the University, received money from Exxon in the 1990s and subsequently published a number of articles denying climate science. In 2008, Peabody Energy pledged to donate $5 million to establish a Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, which received pushback for being misleading about the inherently polluting nature of the fossil fuel industry.
Sophomore Jessie Thornton, one of the lead organizers for Fossil Free WashU, said that Washington University’s ties to the coal industry are largely a result of the close relationship between St. Louis and energy companies. She said that the influence of fossil fuel companies on campus is also indicative of the scope of their influence in other aspects of society.
“The presence of these corporations on our campus is demonstrative of the influence that they have in all things, society in general and really the globe at large because they’re often multinational corporations,” she said. “Peabody was the world’s largest private coal company right before it declared bankruptcy, and that’s a pretty big deal because the fact that Peabody and Arch are both headquartered in St. Louis means that, reasonably, I think it’s fair to assume that we have more connections to the coal industry being in St. Louis and being in Missouri than perhaps Stanford [University] in California [does].”
The issue with Peabody
Fossil fuel companies have long been criticized by the scientific community for their contributions to air pollution and denial of climate change. Others point to the social ramifications of fossil fuel, such as its effects on marginalized communities and the displacement of native people. Peabody has come under scrutiny for depleting water sources in Black Mesa, Ariz., where there is a large native population, and for receiving large tax breaks in that area.
Gustafson feels that Washington University’s relationship with Peabody and the fossil fuel industry undermines its commitment to public health and science. He went on to say that there is a contradiction between the goals of the University and the goals of the corporations.
“We all breathe dirty air. That’s why all of our voices have this vocal fry in St. Louis; the air is dirty, and a lot of it has to do with coal,” he said. “However you slice it—I mean whether it’s the existence of the atmosphere and the climate and the conditions we’re in, or the fact that we have high asthma rates—part of that is because we have dirty air?”
Caitlin Lee, a Washington University alum who was involved with Students Against Peabody and was arrested for her involvement in the movement in 2014, shared the story of Judy and Glenn Kellen, a farming couple that lives in southern Illinois, where the coal is mined.
“When [the mine is] active, it’s detonating explosions often, and they don’t do a good job of telling people when that’s going to happen; it can happen at any time of the day. When it happens, often, so much debris goes into the air that you can’t see around you. If you’re outside, your whole house shakes,” she said. “[Judy and Glenn] say they would leave if they could, but you can’t financially leave because no one’s going to buy your house because the value has completely diminished. And so you’re kind of stuck there, with the health impacts that come with being around that.”
Student and faculty activism
According to Lee, student opposition to Peabody began about eight years ago, when coal executives got positions on the board of trustees and the Consortium for Clean Coal was being started. When Lee was a student, she was pulled into Students Against Peabody by friends, before the occupation started in spring 2014. The group occupied for 17 days and negotiated with the administration, eventually leaving because they felt no progress was being made. Students also held a rally outside a board of trustees meeting and protested Peabody’s annual shareholder’s meeting in Clayton, Mo., countering police opposition.
“The country police, the city police and the campus police all showed up, and the campus police were waiting for us. The county police brought in riot gear into the building. They didn’t use it against us, but they had it there,” she said. “The front line of students [was] arrested by the police and were processed, then, in the campus [Washington University Police Department] offices. [They] were charged with trespassing and with disturbing the peace.”
After the summer 2014 break and the events at Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014, the movement against Peabody dissociated, as members graduated and moved on to other roles in activism. A Student Union resolution—passed by a 14-2 majority—that would have committed the University to divesting from fossil fuels by 2025 was largely forgotten.
Now, Fossil Free WashU is continuing broader efforts to urge the University to divest from fossil fuels, working to educate the student body and negotiate with the administration. A student petition released in January has about 1,000 signatures as of press time, and a faculty petition was released last week. Additionally, Fossil Free recently met with Chancellor Mark Wrighton to present him with materials for the board about the divestment efforts of peer institutions, as well as about the endowment reform processes of universities like Duke University and Columbia University.
“We’ve never had the opportunity to present our materials to anyone on the board before. While we did go into the meeting asking for a presentation ourselves in front of the board, we feel like this was a good compromise. And board members are accessible; we can call them ourselves,” Thornton said. “We definitely are not interested in ostracizing them. That being said, we will continue to respond as convincingly and persuasively as possible and [will] hold the administration accountable if we feel like they’re stalling, or they’re not genuinely trying to make an effort toward even having a conversation with us.”
Gustafson, who has spoken out against the University regarding its relationship with the fossil fuel industry, believes the role of faculty should be to support student activists in the interest of pursuing the truth.
“To date, we haven’t had enough faculty speaking out,” he said. “I certainly believe that the student activism has had an impact. And, as I said before, I certainly think it is the role of faculty—especially for someone like me, who teaches on these issues—to point out to the students that it’s not just what we talk about in the classroom. These are real issues, and I think that’s important.”
Responses to Boyce’s resignation
Former Peabody CEO Boyce’s resignation came as a surprise to many of those who have worked toward this goal for years. Although the circumstance of his resignation are still unknown, many viewed it as a victory against fossil fuel interests and for student activism.
“After this came out, and after we put out the press release, there were people who were involved at all levels of the campaign who were celebrating this win, amongst a [Donald] Trump presidency, amongst fights that they’re continuing in other places around the country,” Lee said. “This was a win that we could claim, and that felt really great. And that showed the power of student organizing and what student organizing did to train a group of leaders to fight for what they believed in.”
Thornton felt similarly shocked and excited, citing the national political climate and the misplaced idea that that students can’t help solve a problem so complex.
“It can feel disempowering at times knowing the extent of the injustices we face and that we really want to discourage having any presence on our campus. And this was just such a moment of freedom from those relationships and from these crazy, intimate ties between coal specifically and between Wash. U.,” she said. “Even if it wasn’t a result of our activism, I do believe that it’s incredibly valuable.”
Gustafson expressed that the University must continue going in this direction, as the removal of Boyce and Leer, who served the full duration of his term, from the board represents a small improvement.
“A step backward would be putting the new CEO of Peabody on the board of trustees,” he said. “That would be a declaration of war against public health, science and the climate, and I hope the University board of trustees are more thoughtful than that.”
According to Wrighton, currently there is no one on the board involved with the coal industry. He said new board members will be appointed at the next board meeting, scheduled for May 5.
In the meantime, Fossil Free WashU plans to continue its efforts in a variety of ways after the release of the student and faculty petitions. One such way is by working with the University and the endowment management group, which currently is hiring a new chief investment officer. Thornton said that Fossil Free wants for this new CIO have socially responsible investing experience and to be someone capable of leading the University through a divestment process.
Thornton added that the chancellor was in support of transparency of endowment, and she said working to vocally represent Fossil Free’s interests to members of the board is the next step to ensure that all information is on the table. She said the University could have up to $200-350 million in fossil fuel investments, but added that there is uncertainty associated with that estimate that needs to be cleared up. Divestment, ultimately, remains the goal.
“I think divestment, for us, there can be no compromise on. Obviously, divesting from coal or divesting from tar sands or divesting partially is still a win, but if we got divestment from coal, our campaign wouldn’t be over,” Thornton said. “We are in it for the long haul, we’re in it for 100 percent divestment, and [if] we find out we’re barely invested in any fossil fuels, great—we still want to completely divest. That’s very important to us as a symbolic move, as a financial way of showing that we do not support these industries and as a way of continuing to separate ourselves and continuing this trend of dissociating from fossil fuel companies.”