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.

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  • GD Klein

    Andrew Won has some interesting and well-thought-out points. Lacking however is this. During the drop in oil prices the last two years, oil companies and allied service companies upgraded their technologies and cut finding costs in half. Thus even at $35/barrel of oil, profits can be made.

    George Devries Klein, ’54, Professor Emeritus (Geology), University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign

  • Andrew Won

    A few more observations.

    University endowments are not trivial to the general economy. Together with not-for-profit foundations and public employee pensions funds, they provide a major portion of the long term capital that makes venture capital, private equity and hedge funds possible. University endowments are an important part of the topology of our modern financial system.

    The activism of students and others that call out morally questionable investments such as tobacco and for-profit prisons isn’t trivial and limited only to symbolism. If the activists are successful, their efforts will reshape the financing environment and help determine which economic activities in our country will receive capital to grow and which will not.

    It wasn’t too long ago that some university endowments were rightly taken to task for investing in companies that build and operate for-profit prisons.

    Back when I was a college undergraduate, the issue was whether my university should divest from South Africa to stop lending financial support to the apartheid regime then in place.

    Reaching back even further in time before university endowments became important, the shining moment in American moral courage was when the country turned its back on slavery at a time when slaves and the land that they tilled were the most valuable asset classes in America by far.

    Prudent management of an endowment is important, but a university like Wesleyan also has to take care to be on the right side of history.

    For all of their inexperience, we have to listen to our young people. They can see and hear things that we no longer can.

  • Andrew Won

    As the father of one of the Wesleyan students who wrote this article (one who does not receive any financial aid), let me offer a few observations:

    First, Wesleyan’s endowment would be richer now if it had divested of fossil fuel investments when Fossil Fuel Divest group starting pressing for divestment. Oil prices fell from a peak of $141.87 per barrel in May, 2008 to $107.45 per barrel in June, 2014 to $29.01 in January, 2016. The price is now about $50.00 per barrel and has been flat for quite some time. With all of the new oil supplies that are now available (fracking, Iran, Brazil, etc. . . .), it is doubtful that prices will ever revisit prior highs.

    Many independent oil companies have filed for bankruptcy in recent years as have major coal companies such as Peabody Energy. Even the major integrated oil companies such as Exxon and Chevron have seen their earnings and stock prices fall in recent years.

    A good fund manager worth his or her salt would have seen this coming with China entering a recession and retreating from world markets for oil, coal, soybeans, corn and other commodities starting two and a half years ago.

    If not for social responsibility reasons, why didn’t Wesleyan’s fund managers divest for purely financial reasons?

    Had the fossil fuel assets been sold two and a half years ago and the sales proceeds reinvested in a basket of major techs such as Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Apple, the asset appreciation would now be between 40% to 50%. I doubt that Wesleyan’s fossil fuel holdings have performed as well.

    It is often easy for older people to dismiss what young people say and write as naive. And, yes, sometimes they do get it wrong. But this is a part of growing up, as is receiving an undergraduate education at a fine university.

    But just as young people may sometimes suffer from naivete, older people tend to fall victim to conventional and outdated thinking.

    Not too long ago, Exxon was the most valuable corporation on the planet. But now, Exxon is no longer in the top 5, having been surpassed by Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.

    The world has changed. And it will continue to change.

    And the change is not just oil companies being displaced from the Fortune 100 after over a century on top, but also a growing recognition that our atmosphere cannot absorb much more CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels without significant consequences for the planet we live on.

    It turns out that former Saudi oil minister Yamani was correct when he famously observed that “[t]he Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” He was fearing renewables when he made this observation, but he was still right. As it turns out, he was more correct than he knew.

    I don’t think it will be too long before oil companies are valued less based on their recoverable oil reserves in the ground and more based on how much of their oil reserves they are likely to be able to sell before fossil fuels are no longer useable.

    Should this come to pass, the valuation and financial consequences for oil and other fossil fuel companies will be significant to the downside.

    Yes, I agree that Wesleyan must prudently manage its endowment.

    But is it doing this when it holds fossil fuel investments at this point in time with ice sheets at risk of melting and sending sea levels higher at a faster rate than many people may believe?

    And what of Wesleyan’s broader role as a university with a mission of educating bright, young, idealistic people to become future leaders in our society?

    What kind of message is Wesleyan conveying to its students when certain things are taught in the university’s classes on the environment, science and so forth, but the university’s investment strategy for its endowment is at odds with these teachings?

    There is more than just a ROI at stake.

    • TheRatiocinator

      It’s remarkable how easy it is to invest when you look in the rear view mirror.

      Show me your published writings from back in 2013 saying “time to trade out of oil exploration and into Apple, Microsoft, and Google” or you’re just blowing smoke.

  • alum

    Agreed with GD Klein. You (meaning activists) can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The Wesleyan Board will do whatever it can to preserve the endowment, and if it was financially prudent to do so, it would have already divested. What do you want, divestment or financial aid? Financial aid doesn’t grow on trees. Wesleyan is barely able to meet financial need as it is. Wesleyan has a moral obligation to make its education affordable, and financial aid is a direct fix. Divestment, as you mention, doesn’t directly affect much of anything, but has the potential to hurt financial aid quite a bit. Not to mention the pool from which faculty and staff salaries are drawn.

  • GD Klein

    The reality is that finance committees of university board of trustees must show a positive return on endowment investment to assure financial resources exist to meet the university’s mission. Fossil fuel companies represent part of a larger portfolio of performing investments. If performance falters or indications are that it will falter (like OPEC’s oil pricing decisions), such (and other) investments are sold to lock in profits. That”s not just common sense but good fiscal management. It has nothing to do with “White Power” or other perceived social injustices, much lesselection results.

    Portfolios that are oriented to ‘social concerns’ tend to perform more poorly. If Wesleyan wishes to invest accordingly, expect tuition fees to go up.

    George Devries Klein ’54,Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois @ Urbana-CHampaign

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