Divestment on College Campuses

Over the past 40 years the idea of being “green” has gone from a hippie, counter-culture ideal to a mainstream, highly sought-after title. Organizations, collegiate institutions, businesses, and corporations are now even working to promote their green status as a marketing tool. And they have made enormous changes: they have greener buildings, promote environmental awareness, put an emphasis on recycled materials, and more. What is often overlooked, though, is their then paradoxical fossil fuel-rich investment portfolios.

A new movement is gaining substantial momentum to curtail this contradictory investment habit—Divestment. In a capitalist system, one of the more effective ways we can make change is by reflecting our ideals in our spending habits. In other words,” put your money where your mouth is.”

Divestment has been used as a tool to implement change on many occasions. One of the most famous divestment campaigns occurred in the ‘80s, when the US divested from South Africa to protest the country’s Apartheid system. This financial pressure pushed the South African government to dismantle its discriminatory system.

The heavy-lifters for this campaign were found on college campuses across the US as students rallied against their institution, which had South African investments. One of the most legendary anti-Apartheid divestment protests occurred on Columbia University’s campus.  Protestors chained themselves into Hamilton Hall and demanded Columbia divest. This highly-publicized protest influenced other institutions to divest themselves—creating a ripple effect.

Today we again see student activists take charge. The fossil fuel divestment movement has its roots on Swathmore College’s campus in 2011 and is sweeping the national and international community. It has spurred other groups and individuals into action, like the Rockefeller Foundation and Mark Ruffalo (from the movie, The Avengers) who both recently divested. There are now divestment campaigns on over 400 college campuses globally, with campaigns fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment for students to interact and learn from each other.

For example, recently Occidental College’s students started their own divestment campaign: Fossil Free Oxy. In order to have impact on their campus and make change, they have tapped into a variety of networks from across California and the US to make it happen. They consulted Fossil Free:  A Campus Guide to Fossil Fuel Divestment to help them establish a united student body and to fully comprehend the issue. Take a look at Fossil Free Oxy’s mission statement to understand what the students are trying to accomplish:

“We demand that the Board of Trustees and administrators of Occidental College freeze all investments in the 200 largest fossil-fuel companies worldwide (measured by proven carbon reserves in oil, gas, and/or coal) and over the next five to ten years, sell the stock in these companies. We also demand that the Board of Trustees work with alumni, faculty and students to determine a portfolio that best meets Occidental’s core values of excellence, equity, community and service.”

Fossil Free Oxy also reached out to Pitzer College, a campus that’s endowment was successfully divested in April. They have been able to learn effective tactics to promote divestment from their fellow college group’s experiences. At Fossil Free Oxy’s request, a representative from Environment: California held a training to teach student activists how to organize campaigns and to communicate a clear message—lifelong lessons. The group is now hard at work planning a Climate Action Week on campus where they can put their new knowledge into effect.

Fossil Free Oxy is a great example of how college students are coming together to make a difference. College students across the globe are engaging with each other and their institutions to incite change. They are holding their institution accountable for its actions. Students are saying that a green roof is a great start, but it isn’t enough. This generation understands that they have been left with a mess and they aren’t willing to wait around to clean it up.

Earth Day Network encourages Fossil Free Oxy and other college groups like it to continue to push their institutions to “walk the walk” and divest.