Between 60 and 80 students gathered outside the Usdan University Center just before noon this past Friday, Feb. 28 to protest current University investment practices. The students were members and supporters of Wes, Divest!, a student-run organization dedicated to encouraging the University to divest from fossil fuels.
Holding hand-made signs that sported slogans ranging from “Everybody deserves clean air” to “We do not inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children,” protestors chanted phrases such as “Wes, Divest! It’s really for the best!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, fossil fuels have got to go.”
Email and Facebook communiqués about the protest characterized it as a way to get the attention of members of the Board of Trustees, who were on campus for a luncheon with students. However, key organizers, such as Abby Cunniff ’17, noted that this goal was auxiliary to the organization’s larger goal of University divestment from fossil fuels.
“We just wanted to do something in their presence while they’re here,” Cunniff said.
Cunniff noted that the Wes, Divest! protest was not meant to engender conflict with the Board, but rather to enhance visibility of the organization’s cause.
However, the large number of students at the protest marked a greater level of activism and confrontation than Wes, Divest! activists have previously pursued. Last semester, the group lined the pathway by North College with approximately 160 photo petitions imploring the University to pursue divestment. This move catapulted Wes, Divest! to prominence on campus and across social media platforms, but Cunniff conceded that it yielded little in terms of policy alterations, a failure that prompted the recent focus on more assertive displays.
“We wanted to make it a bit more confrontational [than the photo petitions] by having real people standing here, chanting these things and making it a real student issue, not just a theoretical student issue,” Cunniff said.
Student mobilization is an area in which Wes, Divest! has found great success. Last semester, the group’s efforts led the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) to pass a resolution on Wednesday, Oct. 30 in support of University divestment. Additionally, the Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR) and leaders in the administration, including President Michael Roth and Chairman of the Board Joshua Boger, met several times last November to discuss the issue. Wes, Divest! members were not granted attendance at these meetings.
Though in November the administration offered CIR members the opportunity to present their proposal again later in the year, one of the individuals present at the meetings expressed doubt about the proceedings. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the individual contended that the administration was being disingenuous in its exchanges with the CIR.
“The administration is using the CIR as a shield to avoid direct interaction with the students most passionate about this movement,” the individual said.
WSA member Scott Elias ’14, who attended Friday’s protest, explained what the WSA resolution on divestment seeks to accomplish.
“The resolution is…basically encouraging the University to work with the Committee for Investor Responsibility…to steer the investment office toward fossil fuel divestment in a responsible way,” Elias said. “We want to increase transparency because we can’t really pinpoint how much we’ve invested in fossil fuels.”
This uncertainty has proved troubling for members of Wes, Divest! in their interactions with administrators who cite financial burdens as reasons not to divest. Wes, Divest! leaders addressed this counterpoint in a speech to gathered students, delivered using the people’s microphone technique.
“We are not calling for immediate, unplanned divestment,” protestors called. “We know that fossil fuels are currently an important source of income for the University. But we also know that there are other ways to do things.”
Director of Financial Aid John Gudvangen, who watched the protest, expressed his faith in the University’s policies in light of financial aid spending.
“I have a responsibility to spend the money as wisely as I can, and I’m fortunate to have a financial aid budget that meets one hundred percent of need,” Gudvangen said. “I want to have as much funds available to do that and I trust that the University makes good decisions.”
However, Gudvangen was quick to underscore the importance of discourse between students and administrators.
“This is all part of what is important about the discussion, not just this discussion, but all of the decisions Wesleyan makes,” he said.
Jake Barack ’14, who was not a participant in the protest, agreed that vocal protests such as that of Wes, Divest! are important for the campus community.
“The fact of the matter is that I don’t know as much about this as I should, so I don’t feel qualified to talk about it as a subject,” Barack said. “But I think it’s absolutely wonderful that there’s a lot of [activist protests] happening because in my four years, to be honest, I’ve been disappointed that there haven’t been more events like this—it doesn’t happen enough.”