On Friday Oct. 17, the Vassar College Board of Trustees met on the college campus for the first and final time this semester. While the Board had their meeting in the nearby College Center, members of the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign gathered in the Retreat dressed in black and lying silently on the floor, enacting a “Human Oil Spill” to signify the destructive effects that the fossil fuel companies—in which Vassar has invested heavily—have had on the environment and communities around the world.
According to the Vassar College Human Oil Spill’s Facebook page, “The point of the oil spill is to gain visibility and raise awareness as well as to put pressure on the administration. It represents the devastating effects that climate change has and the lives that it has already taken.”
“The goals of this in-progress series of actions are to start making fossil fuel divestment a more visible issue on campus, energize our campaign members, and show the administration and trustees that students are excited about the issue of divestment,” said Benjamin Lehr ’16, a student member of the Divestment Campaign, in an emailed statement.
After the human oil spill event, the members of the Divestment Campaign chanted in the Retreat, “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!” They made their way to the room where the Board was meeting and briefly continued chanting outside to help the Board understand more clearly what they wanted. “[It was to] get the message that it is time for action on divestment,” Lehr explained.
A statement from the group’s site explained the short-term goals for the movement. “Divestment is planning to have a series of human oil spills which will grow and escalate and get more attention over time. We will pop up in various locations all over campus every few weeks. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome.”
The call for divestment from fossil fuels at Vassar is part of a growing national movement. Vassar is one of more than 300 colleges across the country that have demanded divestment, and even Barack Obama—in a speech about climate change at Georgetown University this summer—said, “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
The members of the Vassar Divestment Campaign share Obama’s belief that divesting from fossil fuels does not necessarily negatively affect economic growth, both at the national level and among our country’s colleges and universities.
The Board of Trustees has not chosen to divest as of yet. Sensing their caution, the Divestment Campaign has decided not to ask for immediate and full divestment, but rather a slower and more feasible economic solution with the Board.
Elise Ferguson ’17 is a co-coordinator for the Divestment Campaign as well as a member of Vassar Greens. According to their website, “The Vassar Greens is a student-led environmental group at Vassar College that focuses on environmental sustainability and social justice to create lasting change on campus and in the greater community.”
On the topic of the Divestment Campaign, Ferguson said, “Right now we are not asking for total divestment. We are only asking for divestment from direct investments. Originally, we asked for total divestment but the school was resistant and so we responded to their criticisms by compromising and scaling back. We are not asking for divestment from co-mingled funds at the moment.”
The Divestment Campaign is excited about its cause but is willing to make compromises with the Board of Trustees. They understand that alienating the Board will not lead to change, but rather to a deeper divide between the student body and those making the fiscal decisions for the school. The Campaign’s proposal to the Board allows them three years for the college to divest from direct oil investments.
Though three years is a short period of time, Ferguson believes it is important to remember that the time frame allows for substantial changes. “[O]nly a small portion of the endowment is directly invested in fossil fuels.” Thus it should not be considered impossible for the Board to invest in greener companies in the timeframe given.
Discourse between the Campaign and the Board is essential in the fight for divestment. The human oil spill in the Retreat allowed the students to encounter members of the Board who were on their way to the meeting in the College Center.
Ferguson stated, “Hopefully, they will consider divestment seriously after seeing how passionate many students are about it.”
The Campaign has found it difficult to communicate with the Board. Ferguson claims, “The administration has not been as responsive as we would like, we have been making compromises and we have been flexible but they have not been.”
Communication and a general continued growth of discussion on campus about the Divestment Campaign is the goal of the series of oil spills that have been carried out this semester. Their goals are not limited to fostering a dialogue with the Board of Trustees in which they really listen to what students have to say and consider seriously divestment as a logical fiscal plan for the school. They also seek to raise awareness and energize the student body so that the administration feels compelled to listen to the voice of the population for whom it claims to make crucial decisions.