Student referendums. Banner drops and group chants. A cappella concerts, spoken word performances and workshops. Faculty and class participation, national media coverage, alumni and Rockefeller Brothers Fund donations. Sit-ins attracting a total of 400 people, with some students rotating around the clock to ensure that students lined the halls of Main and key administrative offices 24/7. It’s hard to believe that, at this time three years ago, the Vassar community became swept up in environmental activism (The Miscellany News, “Divest VC sit-in influences administration,” 05/04.2016).
The various events were all organized by the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign (DivestVC). Since the time of these events, however, Main’s halls have been relatively uncrowded and quiet. Some student activists think inactivity will render DivestVC’s efforts ineffectual; they believe that continued student advocacy and pressure on administration are key to ensuring that Vassar as an institution values the environment.
I conversed with a trio of said student activists, who are starting a new movement called the Vassar Climate Action Coalition (VCAC), to learn more about the past upon which they hope to build, as well as their upcoming endeavors. Joe Wisell ’20, who participated in the original DivestVC campaign, explained its history in detail. According to Wisell, DivestVC started as early as 2012 and culminated in the mass protests in 2016 before ending in 2017. The campaign had several intermediate steps leading up to its ultimate goal of protecting the environment.
One of the campaign’s goals was to reform the bureaucratic process that, in their eyes, obstructed students from vocalizing their environmental concerns to Vassar’s various committees. Wisell explained, “There are four steps to the bureaucratic process. You have to submit a proposal to four committees before it’ll be looked at by the Trustees, such as the Campus Investment Responsibility Committee and the Trustee Investment Responsibility Committee. We wanted to change the campus Investment Responsibility Committee so that it would have more student representation on it.” Securing a student foothold in the committee was a necessary stepping stone to ensure that Vassar divested in fossil fuels, meaning that the college would divert its investments from fossil fuel companies to other less environmentally harmful businesses.
That being said, there was a huge hurdle to the final leap of influencing Vassar’s investment portfolio. Kira Peterson ’20 lamented this obstacle which continues to block advancement: “The Trustees have a pretty strong philosophical stance that the endowment cannot be [used] politically, but money is inherently political.” The committees’ official stance can be found in a letter from 2017. They acknowledge the divestment campaign on campus, but conclude that the endowment can only be allocated towards furthering the College’s mission, and investments should be made based solely on risk-adjusted returns. Political or environmental concerns are extraneous (Vassar Board of Trustees, “Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee Letter,” 09.01.2017).
By the end of its run in 2017, DivestVC did not achieve fossil fuel divestment. While they would like to revisit this goal, doing so has proven difficult. Peterson later revealed that, through a conversation with Vice President for Finance and Administration Stephen Dahnert, Vassar has little ability to access this information whether its investments in commingled and hedge funds support fossil fuels.
However, the Vassar Climate Action Coalition has another purpose: to hold Vassar accountable to Vassar’s carbon neutrality target to be met by 2030. They already see a potential step away from carbon neutrality in the upcoming construction of the Inn and Institute. Both will serve as venues for conferences and events, in addition to other projects (The Miscellany News, “Faculty housing to be demolished,” 04.03.2019).
None of the three activists felt stronger about the buildings than Melissa Hoffman ’21, who declared with gusto, “It’s frustrating to think that the Trustees are pouring so much money into this stupid elitist project that’s only going to serve the Trustees, when there’s so much need for other projects on campus to forward sustainability…If it’s not going to be carbon neutral or it’s not one of their main goals, what’s the point of a liberal arts education and the liberal arts agenda?” It looks like Vassar’s student environmentalists may once again butt heads with the Board of Trustees.
Aside from fighting for a sustainable Inn and Institute, the VCAC is also gearing up for next semester. Over the summer, a carbon neutrality study outlining various paths and cost estimates for meeting the 2030 target will be conducted. The movement’s main concern is that the study, which will be presented to various boards and committees, will not be aggressive enough to reduce Vassar’s carbon footprint to zero by 2030.
When the time comes, the Vassar Climate Action Coalition plans to organize several activism events meant to pressure the administration, such as letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations. In the meantime, they hope to raise awareness and facilitate discussions. For example, their upcoming informational session on April 25 will focus on topics such as what environmental justice means and alternative concrete strategies for furthering their cause.
The activists are itching to take action. An impassioned Hoffman put it this way: “Everyone is going to be affected by climate change. We are currently in a climate emergency. It’s extremely urgent right now. We all have to do something about it.”