‘The time to divest is now’: Students rally outside of DUC and Brookings to call for Washington University to divest from fossil fuels
About 50 students gathered in the courtyard outside the Danforth University Center Friday afternoon to protest Washington University’s continued investment of the endowment in fossil fuel companies.
The protest was organized by Fossil Free WashU, a student group that has long advocated for the University’s divestment from fossil fuels. The event took place just over a month after Harvard University announced that it would divest from fossil fuels in September, joining a growing list of higher education institutions that have fully or partially divested, including Brown University, Cornell University and the University of California system.
“Every other major university that WashU looks up to has already divested,” senior Christina Lee said in an interview after the protest. “WashU cannot keep calling itself the ‘Harvard of the Midwest’ if we cannot keep up with other institutions.”
Incorporating Halloween themes, the demonstration featured signs reading “Fossil fuels are all tricks and no treat,” “Be on the ride side of history” and “Ghosts might be transparent but WashU’s investing isn’t.” Throughout the protest, students called on the University to divest from fossil fuels, citing both the environmental necessity and their social responsibility.
“There’s a certain irony in the fact that this is an institution based on educating people for the future, but at the same time it’s invested in the destruction of our future,” freshman George Kingsland told Student Life after the protest.
Chancellor Andrew Martin wrote in a blog post in March 2020 that the endowment has “limited exposure to non-renewable resources (which includes energy, materials, and mining) and high carbon emission sub-sectors (which includes auto/air transportation and certain industrials/capital goods).”
He further stated that the University would not “risk jeopardizing the financial support of the University’s mission” by divesting from fossil fuels. Martin confirmed that this was still the University’s stance in an interview with Student Life last month but recognized that fossil fuels are no longer strong investments. He explained that the University does not use “negative or positive screens” — scores of environmental, social and governance factors — to limit the types of investments made for the endowment portfolio.
“When we put together the endowment portfolio, no negative screen is going to say we’re not going to invest in certain types of assets,” Martin said. “We’re going to invest wherever we think we’re going to get the very best return.”
Many of the speakers at the protest expressed their disapproval of the University’s stance on the grounds that it “prioritizes profit over people.” They also argued that divestment is not only economically feasible but preferable.
“It will help secure our university’s fiscal future and cause real damage to the fossil fuel industry,” said senior Jared Moxley, a lead Fossil Free organizer. “Institutions that have divested have specifically cited the future instability of fossil fuel investments in their decision to divest.”
Moreover, Lee and Kingsland both said they felt the University and its students have an even greater responsibility to divest in light of the unprecedented $5.7 billion endowment pool growth this past year.
“Now that we have more money and seeing greater benefits here as students, I think we have greater responsibility to push the administration to make sure that money is used in a way that is ethical,” Kingsland said.
After a series of speeches were given around the firepit in Edison Courtyard, approximately 40 protestors marched to Brookings Hall, reciting chants such as “Divest divest! Put fossil fuels to rest!” and “Seas are rising, so are we. WashU, what’s your legacy?” They were followed by several Washington University Police Department officers, who had also been stationed near Graham Chapel and Bauer Hall throughout the protest.
The organizers originally planned to end their protest at Brookings, but after urgings from the crowd, they renewed their efforts and marched back to the DUC, this time leading a procession of about 30 people through the building before disbanding.
Both organizers and attendees of the protest declared that the University cannot consider itself a climate leader.
“We cannot call ourselves a climate leader if we are continuing to bankroll the fossil fuel industry,” Lee said in a speech. “It’s that simple.”
“WashU always claims to be a climate leader, always calls on students to take action, but they never actually put their money where their mouth is,” junior Frances Wu told Student Life after the protest.