Yale students lead civil disobedience to demand divestment

Via The Yale Herald | Rachel Calcott

Image from the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition

On Monday, Mar. 4, a stroll up Whitney Avenue would have brought you into the midst of a huddle of figures assembling quietly outside the Yale Investments Office. The protesters arrived in ones and twos, carrying posters, cameras, and water bottles. Having reached critical mass, the assortment of undergrads, post-grads, and New Haven activists filed into 55 Whitney to take up residence in the foyer until Yale agreed to two things: divest fully from its holdings in fossil fuel companies, and cancel its holdings in Puerto Rican debt. The protest, which was the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition’s second sit-in, resulted in the arrest of 17 students.

“All the other channels failed us. Clearly, engaging with the administration is not going to work,” Nora Heaphy, MC ’21, tells me when asked why students have decided to take direct action. “80 percent of the student body voting in favor of divestment is not going to work, and logic and reason and 20-page research papers and storms destroying the homes of students is not going to work… and so we didn’t have many other tactics left available to us.”

Physical demonstrations of discontent with governing bodies’ laissez-faireresponse to the threat of climate change have not been limited to Yale. On Mar. 15, over a million students marched out of classrooms and onto streets around the globe in protest of how current administrators’ actions — or lack thereof — are undermining the futures they profess to be preparing us for.

A growing number of Yale students want to confront the way the University’s influence and financial clout is wielded in support of the fossil fuel industry. Students are no longer content to merely engage in on-campus recycling or enroll in Environmental Studies courses. Caught between the constant barrage of scientists’ warnings and the inability to enact policy, Yale students have turned to Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) to give voice to their concerns — the greatest of these being the investment practices of those behind Yale’s 29.4-billion-dollar Endowment.

The Endowment

So what’s the deal with the Endowment? If you’ve read much about the Yale Endowment, you’re probably aware that it’s outstripping Harvard and Columbia in terms of fiscal growth, and that Yale’s Chief Investment Officer, David Swensen, has a knack for investment strategy that’s earned him the title “Yale’s 8-billion-dollar man.” You may also have read that the Endowment’s portfolio still includes investments in fossil fuel companies and holdings in Puerto Rican debt, despite ongoing student pressure to divest.

Mikki Metteba, BR ’22, a member of Fossil Free Yale, expresses a growing concern that “our world-class educations are funded with climate destruction and mass incarceration.” Yale students like Metteba, along with members of the broader New Haven community, have coalesced under the banner of the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition to campaign for full divestment. “Where Yale says they’re ‘invested’ in environmental justice and restoring some sort of climate balance, their actual investments say another thing, and these investments speak louder than simply saying they care about this matter,” Metteba says.

Why Direct Action?

The Yale Endowment Justice Coalition — a melding of Fossil Free Yale, Yale Students for Prison Divestment, Despierta Boricua (a Puerto Rican student group) and other groups — began employing Non-Violent Direct Action as a method to generate change when they found the traditional channels of communication with the administration to be ineffective.

“For me, Non-Violent Direct Action is a necessary and just response to a rigged and fraudulent democratic system of representation,” says Ross Pennock, DIV ’21, a member of the Endowment Justice Coalition. Ross’s camera swings around his neck as he interviews participants at the sit-in at 55 Whitney. A member of the Episcopalian church on his way to becoming a priest, Ross is part of the Coalition’s media team. “NVDA creates change by disrupting business as usual, organizing communities to demand equal opportunities of goods and services, or just the freedom to live,” he says over the sounds of the protest.

Of course, this recent sit-in is by no means the first time students have employed NVDA on campus.

A brief history of Divestment

In 1986, at the height of apartheid, 151 Yale students were arrested during a protest which involved the construction of wooden shanties (a symbol of the conditions black people were enduring in South Africa) on Beinecke Plaza. The anti-apartheid divestment movement, played out on a national scale, prompted 155 colleges and 200 companies to remove nearly one billion dollars of investments from South Africa. The ensuing capital flight and currency devaluation contributed significantly to the ending of the apartheid regime.

The Yale students of 1986 may have prompted Yale’s direct divestment of a few million dollars; however, according to Geremy Schulick, MUS ’05, a climate activist and Content Curator for the international nonprofit Project Drawdown, the deeper power of endowment divestment lies in its ability to catalyze national dissent. “I think [divestment] is largely symbolic. But symbols are really powerful, especially when they come from prominent institutions,” he explains. “If you have enough prominent investors saying we don’t want to invest in this anymore, it could potentially take on a toxic air.”

Perhaps the most oft-cited argument against divestment is that it would be “economically harmful” for the Endowment. The Endowment powers the vast machinery of Yale, funding 34 percent of total operations, from graduate research to professor salaries and the financial aid that many of us depend on. However, leaders of the finance world are undermining this argument. Jeremy Grantham, a co-founder of the multi-billion-dollar investment firm Grantham, Mayo, and van Otterloo, states in a New Yorker interview that despite short-term dips, “We looked at the real cost of divestment, and there is none. The data is clear.” He goes on to suggest that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton follow his lead in divesting, as “they have the best optics.”

Discussing Yale’s recent, silent withdrawal from Antero, a major fracking company, Metteba is critical: “According to the Endowment Justice Coalition, that isn’t divestment… that’s decreasing holdings in one fracking company, that really doesn’t do anything.” Like Grantham and Schulick, she emphasized the symbolic value of investment decisions, noting the importance of transparency. She believes that this withdrawal “does nothing to reverberate any kind of moral stance on the subject of climate change.”

Divestment, at its best, is a nation-wide movement. Individually, the removal of one university’s investment (even when backed by an endowment the size of a small country’s GDP) will have little effect on the fossil fuel industry. But Yale is in prime position to punch above its weight when it comes to national influence. Thanks to Swensen’s financial finesse and the Endowment’s national prominence, Yale’s investment portfolio influences the decisions of endowment and organization investors across the country.

What’s so wrong with a little investment?

Even if the divestment movement sweeps the nation, resulting in wholesale withdrawal from the fossil fuel industry, don’t we still need fuel in our cars, petroleum-based clothing on our backs, and coal-powered electricity to heat our morning coffee? Perhaps we do — for now. However, the money we contribute to fossil fuel companies directly slows the process of shifting from oil, coal, and gas dependency to forms of green energy.

“It’s fundamentally misrepresenting the role of the investor when you use dependency as an excuse to invest,” says Schulick. “As an investor, you invest in a company for growth. If we’re really trying to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in a relatively short time frame, we shouldn’t be supporting the growth of that industry.” In an article in The American Prospect, Schulick and his wife, Jennifer Stock, PC ’03, highlight the fact that investment props up the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying clout, ability to combat climate-conscious regulations, and influence on national opinion through media campaigns.

As elections loom, concerns over the fossil fuel industry’s political power give an added urgency to the call for divestment. Nora Heaphy raises the issue, asking, “What would it be like to win the 2020 election, to have our ideal candidate, and to be unable to pass the climate policies we need because even those politicians are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry?”

“You and I probably can’t persuade Trump right now to pass climate policy,” Heaphy admits with a laugh. “But we can make sure that in 2020, when things like the Green New Deal are set and ready to go, we have sufficiently weakened the power of the fossil fuel industry.”

Large-scale divestment from fossil fuel companies is not without precedent. Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, recently announced his intent to divest the city’s pension fund (one of the largest in the country, controlling 194 billion dollars in investments) away from fossil fuel reserve owners by 2022. In a joint op-ed published by The Guardian, Blasio and Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, state their belief that, “…ending institutional investment in companies that extract fossil fuels and contribute directly to climate changecan help send a very powerful message that renewables and low-carbon options are the future.” More than 40 U.S. colleges have already either fully or partially divested. However, the Ivy League lags behind, with only Columbia and Stanford’s divestment from coal to show for these prominent institutions’ professed commitment to “shaping the future.”

Yale’s mission statement includes a commitment to “improving the world today and for future generations.” The students, alumni, and community members that I spoke to believe that Yale is failing to deliver on this promise. And the mutually dependent relationship between students and university means that we have unparalleled power to influence the institution of which we are a part.

“We believe that direct action is one of the only ways we have available to have our voices heard by the administration,” Heaphy says. “We hope that the Yale administration and David Swensen will see that the vast majority of the student body supports our demands, and that they therefore will have no choice but to agree to them.” As more and more students refuse to accept the pace of change set by university administrators, it can’t be long before the ivory towers of the U.S. are forced out of apathy.

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