The Old College Try

Students are pushing their schools to divest from fossil-fuel companies. Administrations are pushing back. History tells us who will win.

Credit: Photo: Light Brigading/Flickr

As a college freshman arriving at the University of Texas in 1987, I assumed that anything I was to learn over the next four years about student activism would be learned via my American history classes. I knew campus protests had played important roles in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, but at the time, I was fairly certain that student-led civil disobedience was simply something that belonged to a previous generation of college kids—much like excess body hair or the poetry of Rod McKuen.

I was wrong. The late ’80s, in fact, represented something of a renaissance for student activism, which had only recently begun to show signs of life after nearly 20 years of relative dormancy. At my school, the animating issue was apartheid, opposition to which had been slowly building on American campuses for a decade before my arrival in Austin. In these protests, students and faculty members typically demanded that universities divest from businesses or funds that were in any way tied to the South African government and its racist policies.

And if, during the last few years of the Reagan era, my fellow freshmen and I were wondering whether student activism was still capable of making a difference, well, we soon learned that it was. Only three years earlier, the number of U.S. educational institutions choosing to divest from South Africa was 53; in 1987, that number more than doubled to 128. A year later it would grow to 155. Those who were paying attention started to realize that we were witnessing the achievement of critical mass, in real time: Once U.S.–based multinationals and government bodies began announcing their divestment decisions, apartheid’s days seemed numbered. It was finally dismantled in 1994—the same year that Nelson Mandela, the longtime anti-apartheid activist and political prisoner, was elected South Africa’s president.

I find myself thinking a lot about my freshman year lately, as I’ve been following the vibrant debate over whether America’s universities should be divesting in companies that make their money off of fossil fuels. Having already seen what student-led protests were able to accomplish, I’m more than optimistic about what they’ll be able to achieve this time around. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people standing in their way.

In late March, William G. Bowen, who served as the president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post that essentially made the case against divestment. “[T]he claim that a university is obligated to take a stand on any issue of broad social import…is nonsense,” he wrote. “To abstain is both a legitimate and appropriate action when the issue is not central to an institution’s educational mission.” As an example of a hot-button issue that is central to an institution’s educational mission, Bowen cites affirmative action—which, he writes, “directly affects educational processes and outcomes.” What doesn’t affect these, he believes, is the issue of global climate change or its root cause: our unsustainable extraction, production, and consumption of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

Any educational institution that claims to be preparing its students for the future shouldn’t be supporting a system that—according to 97 percent of climate scientists—poses the single-greatest threat to that future.

By publicly voicing his dissent, Bowen has given cover to sitting presidents of universities who have come under pressure to divest but are hesitating, or even outright rejecting the idea. These institutions, disappointingly, include Swarthmore, where students kicked off the contemporary divestment movement five years ago; Middlebury, where the environmental grass-roots organization was founded (by the activist and journalist Bill McKibben, a Middlebury professor); and Yale, Harvard, and Tulane, where students have organized mass sit-ins over the last year. So far, the list of major U.S. schools that have committed to divestment in one form or another is relatively small: Stanford, Syracuse, Georgetown, and the universities of Washington and Maine, to name a few. (A full list can be found here.)

Right now, though, halfway through the sleepy (and steamy) summer of 2015, I have a sneaking suspicion that this issue is going to heat up once students and professors return in the fall. The biggest clue as to why, for me, is found in the logical and historical weaknesses of Bowen’s rhetoric—to begin with, his false presumption that the “educational mission” of a college is something that is arrived at independently of the students or faculty members.

For those hundreds of thousands of students and professors who are asking their schools to divest from fossil fuels, the issue isn’t political: It’s existential. Any educational institution that claims to be preparing its students for the future shouldn’t be supporting a system that—according to 97 percent of climate scientists—poses the single-greatest threat to that future. Schools should be about promoting cognitive development, not cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to imagine how anything but the latter occurs when a Harvard student walks out of her earth sciences class, in which the case for anthropogenic global warming has been laid out clearly and precisely, only to learn that her school is doubling down on its decision to invest in­—and profit from—the industrial practices behind it.

But as stark as the logical fallacy in Bowen’s argument is, the historical fallacy is even starker. Whether he and other administrators care to admit or not, one of the reasons these campaigns are growing (and make no mistake: Despite the administrative pushback, the divestment movement is expanding) is that the protestors know that well-organized and highly visible student-led movements are effective. More often than not, they work. In the 1960s and ’70s, they accelerated America’s nascent civil rights movement and the military’s withdrawal from Vietnam. In the ’80s—as I witnessed at my own university—they helped speed up the global cascade of institutional divestment from the racist South African government and its summary replacement by a democratically elected one, led by a black president.

Nelson Mandela understood this. In the foreword to a 2007 book, he wrote:

[W]ithout the decades-long divestment campaign undertaken by university students, churches, civil rights organizations, trade unions, and state and local governments to cut economic ties to South Africa, the U.S. Congress would not have acted, even to the extent of overriding a presidential veto. International sanctions were a key factor in the eventual victory of the African National Congress over South Africa’s white minority regime.

Mandela’s jailer (and presidential predecessor) F. W. de Klerk understood it, too. “[W]hen the divestment movement began, I knew that apartheid had to end,” he told Adele Simmons, the former president of Hampshire College, in 2011.

By pushing for divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, student protestors aren’t demanding that their schools take sides in a political issue of little or no relevance to higher education. They’re demanding that administrators stop contradicting what university science departments have long been citing as the chief culprit in anthropogenic global warming—and which threatens to make life miserable not just for the people of one race or one country but for all people.

And if history is any guide, these students are going to remind us how to get things done.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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