*This was originally published in The Ithacan on April 4th, 2015.
On the last day of March, Syracuse University announced it will be
divesting — or withdrawing its endowment fund investments — from coal
and other fossil fuel companies. The Orange Nation is joining a growing
list of colleges and universities who are taking this step, in addition
to municipalities, religious institutions, foundations and more.
The movement to divest has primarily been led by college students and
broadcasted by environmental activist organization 350.org. With
hundreds of active student organizations across the country, sit-ins,
marches and banner drops are becoming more and more common.
The City of Ithaca is on the list of municipalities who have
divested, and the Park Foundation — an invaluable financial source for
the Park School of Communications and Ithaca College as a whole — is
among the list of divested foundations. The college, however, is nowhere
to be found on 350’s “Divestment Commitments” list.
The college’s student organization aimed at pressuring administration
to take this step, Divest IC, has faltered and become inactive. Without
it, President Tom Rochon and the Board of Trustees are off the hook.
How did this happen? The biggest reason seems to be that student
leaders struggled to open the doors of discussion with the Board of
Trustees. In a Feb. 2014 letter to the editor, Rebecca Billings, ’14, said attempts to create dialogue with administration were often ignored.
“We are often met with roadblocks in this process, as our attempts
for open dialogue with the board and administration have been repeatedly
ignored and cut off,” she said. “We hoped to work alongside the board
and administration to make it a reality, but they continue to ignore our
emails and steps toward collaboration.”
As an activist myself, I know how difficult a lack of response can
be, and how quickly it can take the momentum out of a movement.
Students involved in divestment also received criticism that they
didn’t know enough about the process and that their goals were
unrealistic. In an article in The Ithacan
about a student protest at Rochon’s office in 2012, Carl Sgrecci, now
retired vice president of finance and administration, is quoted saying
the college’s investment in fossil fuel companies makes up “half of one
percent” of the endowment investments.
According to the college’s website,
the endowment for the fiscal year of 2014 was $268,214,127. If
Sgrecci’s statement still remains true, that means as much as $1.3
million is being invested in the fossil fuel industry. Suddenly “half of
one percent” doesn’t seem so small.
While that may be a lot of money to the average person, what’s $1.3
million to the fossil fuel industry? Not even a penny. But bankrupting
the industry is not the point of the divestment movement.
On its website, Exxon Mobil said divestment is “a movement that is
out of step with reality … To not use fossil fuels is tantamount to not
using energy at all, and that’s not feasible.”
The point of the divestment movement is to fight this sort of
mindset. A clean energy future is possible through a combination of
renewable technologies and a restructuring of our current, energy
intensive way of life. By pulling monetary support, a message is sent
that we are ready to move forward into that next stage.
In my work as a journalist, activist and student, I have become
familiar with the college’s Climate Action Plan to be carbon neutral by
2050. To achieve neutrality, the plan explores a myriad of possible
actions: installing renewable energy on campus, developing behavior
change programming and purchasing carbon offsets, to name a few.
However, the plan, approved by the Board of Trustees in 2009, makes no
mention of divestment.
I would find it quite impossible to claim carbon neutrality while still investing money in the fossil fuel industry.
Among the reasons for becoming carbon neutral stated in the action plan, benefiting others is one.
“Just as we expect our students to utilize their acquired competence
for the benefit of others, our Climate Action Plan is an exercise for
the benefit of other educational institutions and the world,” the
document says. “Rather than wait for environmental mandates, we act now
out of a sense of shared responsibility.
Fossil fuel extraction and production does not occur on a different
planet, nor strictly in remote, lifeless places on our own planet. It
happens in the same places where ecosystems thrive and where humans
live. These fuel sources come with a price of life, and that includes
human life. In our daily lives we often don’t see the other side of our
light switches and car ignitions, but after walking across the country
in the Climate March, I saw the other side and the communities suffering
from it. It’s not pretty. It’s not humane.
One of the best things Ithaca College can do to fulfill its goal of
benefiting others, in specific regards to communities and individuals
affected by industry and climate change, is to remove all ties to fossil
fuels. That includes divesting our endowment.
This is also one of the best ways the college can show that it cares
about the futures of its students after they leave. The effects of
climate change are something we are going to be dealing with for the
rest of our lives.
This cannot be done without students demanding it, and it cannot be
done without the college developing a space for students to be heard.
Determination is needed; discouragement is not an option. As stewards of
the planet and the future, our only option is to win. That is our
As for claims that divesting is too difficult? I find that hard to
buy when it’s being done across the country and the world, including our
Orange neighbors to the north. That claim has gone from being a reason
not to divest to an excuse.