The Message Universities Are Sending When They Refuse to Divest

I came to Northwestern University excited to become that cliché "global citizen"; to learn about the world, to meet people from places I had never been to, and to find new passions. Like many students, I wanted to get something out of my college experience besides just a degree. My time at Northwestern has really broadened my mind, exposing me to problems of race, mental health, socioeconomic status and other critical issues that I hadn't previously encountered. I've found my biggest passion in environmental and climate justice work, particularly in the coal divestment campaign on campus, Fossil Free NU. Students in this movement are incredibly committed to improving the world, and they never cease to inspire me. I'm equally amazed by the determination of our university leaders: their determination to remain stagnant, to lag behind the times and to uphold the status quo. They leave me unimpressed.

All colleges aim to be trailblazers in society and work to improve the world. Strategic plans and mission statements are filled with buzz words pledging "engagement", "advancement", "discovery" and "change." In our own strategic plan, Northwestern has committed itself to sustainability, saying we will "contribute to the solutions for renewable energy and a sustainable environment." There are certainly ways Northwestern is doing that--researching energy technologies, installing solar panels, supporting student group projects and more. But in addition to contributing to solutions, Northwestern is also contributing millions of dollars to the problem itself: the fossil fuel industry.

Fossil Free NU has worked tirelessly for two years to make our campaign a success. We've passed student and faculty senate resolutions, collected hundreds of petition signatures and letters, and organized marches and rallies. Our work has been paying off: in April, 74 percent of our undergraduate student body voted in favor of divestment. But in spite of all the effort we've devoted to this movement and strong student support we've received, our administration still doesn't take us seriously. For instance, we were told in March that our Board of Trustees voted 'no' to coal divestment back in November--three months after the vote took place. We hadn't been informed a vote was even occurring, let alone the outcome. This blatant disregard for student opinion emphasizes a lack of accountability in our administration. And the Board's refusal sends a clear message to our student body: our school's alleged commitment to the environment only goes so far.

By refusing to divest from fossil fuels, universities are saying, 'We value profit over the health of the planet and its people,' 'Inaction is alright,' 'Climate change is someone else's problem,' and 'We can't be bothered.' It's going against all those finely-crafted mission statements and strategic plans and defying what our schools supposedly stand for. No university can say with a clear conscience that it is dedicated to the betterment of the world and its students while it still invests in fossil fuels. Universities shouldn't advertise themselves as places that prepare graduates to address issues facing the world while they fail to face those issues themselves. To do so is inconsistent and hypocritical.

A college experience is supposed to prepare me to enter the "real world." The good news is that my work with Fossil Free NU has already braced me for the way the "real world" works. Trustees who say divestment is ineffective, who preach that our endowment shouldn't be used to make a "political statement" and who believe divestment is a hassle have taught me some valuable lessons. From them I've learned that the "real world" is full of businesspeople more concerned with short-term profit than long-term global benefit. It's a world brimming with people eager to let others take care of problems and distance themselves from the issues at hand. It's a world where what's easy often gets priority over what's right. But this "real world" mentality that I've seen so often in Northwestern's Board of Trustees and administration has to stop. If all we see is cynicism and inaction, my generation won't embody the values necessary to combat climate change and make a difference in the world. To prepare the next generation of leaders, universities need to demonstrate leadership themselves.

I expect my Northwestern education will equip me for my future and make me into that "global citizen" I had hoped to become. But with a world run by fossil fuels, what type of future will I enter? Will the globe I'm supposed to be a citizen of be one without the Maldives, without the polar ice caps, without Manhattan? In addition to preparing its students to handle the world, Northwestern and all educational institutions should work to ensure that there's a world left to handle. Divestment is one of the first steps to doing so.