Vassar students have proved that they support fossil fuel divestment on paper and in practice. 91 percent of students voted in support of fossil fuel divestment in the recent referendum and more than 400 people showed up to the sit-in conducted by Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign last week to lend their presence to the cause.
Student protesters camped out for a week outside of President Catharine Bond Hill’s office, many even staying overnight to ensure that the hall was occupied every moment of each day of the week. According to Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign member Sophie Cash ’19, at least 50 people were present every day at meetings with administrators. Member Martin Man ’16 reflected in an emailed statement, “I think the week went in many respects better than many of us expected. I anticipated that once we began the sit-in, people would be attracted to come and participate, but it was still very encouraging to see the swell of student, faculty, alumnae/i and staff support (not to mention support from outside Vassar, too) rally around the action we had been planning for weeks.”
The fossil fuel divestment movement is the fastest-growing divestment movement in history. Vassar’s campaign received attention from national and campus media alike, including from the Huffington Post, radio station WAMC and campus magazine Boilerplate.
The sit-in was also the largest climate action event in Vassar’s history and one of a movement of many similar demonstrations at colleges and universities around the world, such as Swarthmore College, Columbia University and Uppsala University in Sweden. Man confirmed, “Campaigns at many institutions have ramped up their action these few weeks and the message is definitely a lot stronger when we all mobilize together like this. An isolated action at one school might be easily ignored or down-played, but we can point to the fact that we are part of a larger movement.”
Divest VC has held several actions every year of its existence, but this event featured slightly different tactics in addition to the standbys of banner drops and group chants. “[W]ays of impressing the administration with our organization and power were things like the bandanas that told everybody who was the specific liaison for each [visitor], like the media, police and administrators, community liaison and the new person wrangler, and that’s a tactic that professional activists use,” explained Cash.
There were also sundry events taking place throughout each day, including a cappella concerts, spoken word performances and workshops about effective activism. Multiple professors brought their classes to the hallway to learn from the activists and lend their numbers to the group lining the hall. Alumni stopped by throughout the week to buoy student activists with verbal support and monetary donations for the week’s food.
Notably, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) came out in support of fossil fuel divestment at Vassar. The Rockefeller family has a long history of connection to the College, beginning with John D. Rockefeller’s donation of his namesake hall. The RBF itself made the decision to divest from fossil fuels in 2014, despite the fact that its famed patriarch earned his fortune largely from investing in oil companies like ExxonMobil (The Guardian, “Rockefeller family charity to withdraw all investments in fossil fuel companies,” 03.23.2016).
After several meetings throughout the week, Hill agreed to several of Divest’s demands, which included setting up arranging a meeting with Divest before the end of the semester. Man clarified, “What we did get is a commitment from Cappy to organize a meeting between us and the executive committee of the board of trustees, which meets and can decide on things between the regular trustee meetings.”
Hill also agreed to a restructuring of the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), which is to be completed by the end of the Fall 2016 semester. Students adamantly insist that it needs to change. Cash explained, “[A]t this moment in time [CIRC] is technically supposed to be made up of two students, two faculty, two administrators and two alumni, and is just really convoluted and messed up because administrators are serving as faculty and alumni even though they’re still administrators.” Man furthered, “This imbalance led to a preponderance of administrators who not only have an interest in keeping the status quo, but also naturally have more power to begin with, especially over students.”
If representation on the committee, which makes decisions on the school’s investments, is made more fair, students believe there is a better chance that issues like fossil fuel divestment will be considered more seriously.
Although everyone involved in the discussions is aware of the pressing nature of climate change, opinions differ on the best way to confront the issue. Divestment member Violet Cole ’19 summarized, “[T]he fundamental issue is that…we all know climate change is a problem and [Cappy] thinks that the way to go about it is not divestment and we think it is.” Hill agreed in an emailed statement, “Our goals are the same–to address climate change. We disagree on the policies to do so. I hope we can find common ground, since we are on the same side of this issue.”
Divest VC members are pleased with the results of the week, but are far from finished fighting for the cause. They believe that after this week, there is great potential for future activist initiatives, both in fossil fuel divestment and other issues. “We can only build on our success from this sit-in, which not only exposed many to the capacity and potential of our campaign, but opened others to the possibility of activism and activist organizing on campus on this scale,” Man declared. “It was as much an exercise of the divestment campaign’s capability to mount a week-long protest as the opening up of a space at the center of Main for collective, non-hierarchical and participatory action.”
The activists expressed that they are disappointed but not surprised at Hill’s ultimate refusal to agree outright to divest the College from fossil fuel. Man noted, “I don’t think it was unexpected, given her past opposition, but we had hoped she might be swayed by the showing of broad support from the Vassar community.” The Divest group hopes to convince Hill and the Board that it is in the institution’s best interest to listen to its constituency and take immediate action. Cash declared, “If we act now, we’ll still be leaders. And Vassar in the past has prided itself for being a socially conscious leader, and we have warned Cappy and the administration that if we fail to act on this issue within the next year or so, likely we will run the risk of losing our chance to be a leader in this aspect… or even a relevant actor.”