To Thank or Not to Thank: Students in Divestment Fight

Experts say crediting students for their climate advocacy is wise. But institutions tend to minimize the role campus activists may have played in helping them decide to divest from fossil fuels.

October 25, 2021
 
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Dartmouth College recently announced plans to divest from fossil fuels.

When Vassar College announced earlier this month that its investment policy will now consider environmental, social and governance factors, the private institution in New York made clear that it does not hold any direct investments in fossil fuels and will not make such investments in the future.

“As stewards of the college, we have long recognized that climate change is an existential crisis and have been committed to combating it in the most effective ways possible,” Anthony J. Friscia, chair of the Vassar College Board of Trustees, said after the board voted on the new policy. “Today’s decision reflects our continued commitment to addressing the climate crisis.”

Vassar is one of many institutions that have pulled away from fossil fuels in recent months. In 2021 alone, dozens of institutions have taken the plunge to divest from the industry, often following years of student and employee activism. These investment decisions are typically trumpeted via a letter from the president or board chairman, and many thank the institutional leaders and committees that created the policies. While many voices and factors contribute to an institution’s decision to divest, one group is seldom credited as the catalyst: student activists.

Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar, thanked a handful of student groups in her announcement about changes to the college’s investment policies. Students were important in pushing Vassar to reform its investment policies, Bradley said, but the college didn’t necessarily grant all their wishes.

“I attend some of these committees and they are valuable,” Bradley wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “Students do research, advocate, and really are partners. We cannot always do things exactly the way they would like, but their voices have influenced our decisions.”

Many institutions give a nod to activists without elaborating on their efforts. Loyola University Chicago, which also announced earlier this month it would divest from fossil fuels, thanked “students, staff, and faculty involved for their advocacy.” Reed College officials also tipped their hats to a handful of student- and employee-led climate activism groups for “tackling complex concerns with open discourse and thoughtful determination.”

But in other cases, students get no thanks at all. When Harvard University announced its plan to phase out indirect fossil fuel investments -- effectively divesting the university’s $53.2 billion endowment from the oil, gas and coal industries -- President Lawrence Bacow made no mention of the students and employees who had been pushing for it.

Harvard student activists, who have spent the better part of a decade demanding that the Ivy League university part ways with the fossil fuel industry, thought Bacow made a mistake.

“We are such a crucial part of that decision,” said Sofia Andrade, a Harvard student and leader of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, the student-led effort urging the university to divest. “We are the ones who have been pushing for Harvard to become a leader and to be on the side of climate justice.”

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The California State University system also did not mention student activism in its short divestment announcement. Neither did Dartmouth College in its message about divestment. When asked about the omission, Justin Anderson, a spokesperson for Dartmouth, said that President Phil Hanlon has met regularly with Divest Dartmouth, a student group, and that he agrees with them that “meeting the energy needs of our planet is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.”

Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications (and a blog contributor to Inside Higher Ed), said there are several reasons why institutional leaders might downplay student efforts or disregard them entirely. Some college officials don’t want to seem as if they had been ignoring the issue.

“Some leaders are sensitive to not wanting it to appear like this issue was brought to them by students and faculty and that leadership didn’t have their eye on these issues long term,” Hennessy said. “So they say, ‘Oh, well, we’ve been following this issue and we’ve been making these changes gradually over time.’ And they leave out the role of activists among their students, faculty and alumni.”

Others are worried that appearing receptive to student demands could burn them later, when students come back with additional requests.

“They are thinking about the next divestment campaign or thinking about the next lobbying campaign from students, faculty and alumni, and they want to be very careful how they signal their openness to those kinds of pressure campaigns,” Hennessy said.

Occasionally, institutions have issued clear thank-yous to student activists. When the University of Michigan announced in March its net-zero investment policy and plans to discontinue fossil fuel investments, regents Mark J. Bernstein and Jordan Acker thanked students for their relentless activism.

“Many of you have been told that you bring passion but no expertise. Likely, there were moments where you felt like you were yelling into the void about the most important issue of our generation, the threat of climate change,” Acker wrote in his message to students. “Those voices are wrong.”

Acker, who graduated from Michigan in 2006, is relatively young for a regent. Crediting students was important to him because he understands where they are coming from, he said. Acker hosts coffee hours on campus where students can meet with him to discuss what’s on their minds. Many students showed up to talk about climate change.

“I think that the way that students went about this issue on our campus was really effective,” Acker said. “There is a tendency sometimes for student activism to be over-the-top and disruptive in order to make a point, and not necessarily the most productive. And this wasn’t that at all.”

Hennessy said it’s wise for leaders to recognize efforts by their constituents, even if it took a while for the institution to get on board.

“I think it rightly acknowledges the work that those groups have done to bring attention to this issue, to educate the campus community about the issue and to honestly help leadership see how important it is for institutional investments to align with institutional values,” Hennessy said.

The students with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard aren’t hung up on who gets the credit, said Connor Chung, a Harvard junior and leader in the student group. They are just glad their position triumphed. (This paragraph was updated to reflect that Chung is a junior at Harvard University.) 

“The Harvard community is one of its greatest resources and has an immense ability to help it become a leader on this issue, and so it’s kind of a shame that Harvard had to be stubborn,” Chung said. “But nonetheless, that does not detract from the fact that this is a historic decision.”

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