If you’re an avid follower of campus activism, you may have noticed that Fossil Fuel Divest has not held any big actions or events this semester. If you’re an avid detractor of campus activism, you have probably been excited that Fossil Fuel Divest has fallen out of sight this semester. If you don’t care, you’re probably reading this because you’re procrastinating.
Wesleyan Fossil Fuel Divest is a campaign that began in 2013 to demand that the University divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Over the past few years, we have gathered petition signatures, given presentations to members of the Board of Trustees, organized sit-ins and direct actions, and participated in the formation of the Coalition for Divestment and Transparency. At this point in our campaign, we are not entirely sure what the next step forward is, as we have exhausted many routes – institutional and otherwise – to get an answer from the Administration.
Despite a lack of action taken over the past few months by Fossil Fuel Divest, most of our members have been active in other organizing that has occurred on campus. Wesleyan and the rest of the world have been extraordinarily shitty recently – from the negligence in the handling of Scott Backer to Trump’s election to the colonial violence at Standing Rock – and we have tried to be as present and active as possible in all fights for justice. The formation of the Student Union and the action taken at the last Board of Trustees meeting show the momentum that students on this campus have to fight for transparency and accountability. Both as a group and as individuals, we have strategically used our energy for what has felt most pressing, and this semester, it did not feel like divestment was necessarily the place where our energy needed to be. However, this does not mean that we think divestment is a tactic that should be forgotten or abandoned.
The purpose of this piece is not to falsely equate fossil fuel divestment to any of the other pressing issues that have been addressed on campus this year. Rather, it is to remind the University that there are intersections between these fights and that we must enact a consistent moral approach to all of them. Fossil Fuel Divest is in the process of shifting our campaign to reflect these connections. With respect to University policy, President Roth has a responsibility to do so as well.
In an August op-ed published in Inside Higher Education, Roth likened his public stance on Trump to the practice of bystander intervention. Roth writes, “We want [students] to feel responsible for bringing attention to the developing calamity. At the very least, we expect them to sound an alarm when danger threatens.” While he acknowledges that he does not believe “that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or candidate,” in this case he broke his own rule. When it comes to Trump, Roth argues that to publicly declare a political position is not anathema to principles of free thought, but rather exactly what is needed in order to develop a politically-engaged student body.
Our question is, what makes Trump different? When does the University decide that a situation is drastic enough that it demands breaking from the usual “politics of neutrality?” As many, many, people have reminded us – particularly those who have faced American oppression for centuries – Trump’s election is horrifying, but reflective of deeply rooted historical trends. Only white liberals are in a position to be shocked by Trump’s victory. If anything, to make Trump’s election the exception is to undermine the severity of other issues that continue to unfold on a daily basis.
After the election, Wesleyan students began to call for the University to become a sanctuary campus, culminating in a student walkout on November 16. On November 20, President Roth announced the sanctuary campus decision, writing in his blog: “These are small steps, to be sure, in the face of a very frightening wave of threats to roll back the civil rights gains made in recent decades. But we will stand up and take these steps; we will do our best to protect our community…” Just two days later he appeared on Fox News to debate his decision with right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson.
We acknowledge that Roth had already been considering declaring Wesleyan a sanctuary campus before the student walkout. Regardless, six days after the walkout he had not only made the decision to officially do so, but had also gone on national television to defend the school’s decision, stating: “I think it’s important for us to take stands of principle, not to choose a-la-carte what kind of laws we are going to obey, but to articulate our principles and do our best to participate in the public political process.” In the same vein, we believe that Roth should be articulating these principles all the time, not just when it is politically expedient.
We welcome Roth’s quick response to post-election student outcries and for taking a firm moral stance. Yet this is a drastic departure from the usual bureaucratic obstacles presented to student activists. Roth and the Wesleyan Administration did what they have consistently called impossible when asked by students – namely, taking quick and public action – because in this case, they found the political will to do so.
Fossil Fuel Divest insists that to refrain from speaking out is not neutral; it is acquiescence. This post-election moment dramatically highlights the hypocrisy of the University’s refusal to vote on fossil fuel divestment, as well as their dismissal of other “inconvenient” forms of political action that students and faculty have demanded. Right now, Wesleyan is an inactive bystander amidst this injustice. We need to sound the alarm, loudly and firmly, for the sake of intervention.
So moving forward, what are we going to do? We in Fossil Fuel Divest are still trying to figure this out. We are going to keep advocating for the divestment of the University’s endowment from fossil fuels. We are going to mobilize against fossil fuel infrastructure currently under construction in the Northeast. We are committed to exposing and destroying white supremacy within our campus community and in the world beyond. We want to hold the Administration accountable for all their failings and we want full transparency.
We recognize that elite universities divesting from fossil fuels may not seem like the most direct way to promote tangible change. Yet, by continuing to profit off of fossil fuels, we are implicated in the militarized, colonial violence being perpetrated by police against the water protectors at Standing Rock. We are bystanders to the threat of cultural erasure facing island nations that will be completely submerged by rising sea levels. Given that the CEO of Exxon is Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, by keeping our money in fossil fuels we are implicitly supporting the incoming administration’s agenda to bolster unjust, exploitative energy economies.
Now, more blatantly than in recent years, we have been shown that we can not rely on existing power structures to take the action that the world, this country, and our communities desperately need. In Roth’s Campus Issues FAQ, he defends the University’s position on fossil fuel divestment, saying instead that a carbon tax and sweeping government regulation is the change we should be pushing for. We know this won’t happen. These actions have not been taken during the Obama administration and they will certainly not be taken under Trump. The government is not coming to save us. In its absence, we need bold action from within our own communities and we need it now.
We demand that the university recognize that in our current moment, it is important to make our politics known. It is important to remain vigilant. Upon declaring Wesleyan a sanctuary campus, Roth acted on the stated morals of the University. In doing so, he demonstrated that action is not only possible, but important and effective. Wesleyan has a moral obligation to speak out: against fascism, against xenophobia, against militarized policing, against injustice in all forms. With emissions rising, we are on the clock. Fossil Fuel Divest is still here, we are watching, and we are ready to answer Roth’s call to sound the alarm.