Activists promote divestment throughout U.’s history

Students have rallied for divestment on issues including apartheid, tobacco and coal

Staff Writer
Monday, September 16, 2013

Students repeatedly rallied to protest Brown’s investment in coal companies, and the Corporation will vote on divestment in October.

After a year of petitions, rallies and protests to divest Brown’s endowment from the nation’s 15 largest coal companies, President Christina Paxson acknowledged the movement last May but deferred any decision. On a campus known for its political activism, this most recent movement is only one in a past full of student-led campaigns calling for reconsideration of the University’s funding.


Protests from the past

Divestment at Brown surfaced in the 1980s as a tactic to garner awareness and support against apartheid in South Africa. Students at more than 150 universities across the country staged similar campaigns, and the success of the national apartheid movement also led the way for a divestment campaign at Brown against Big Tobacco in the 1990s. In 2003, the Corporation announced its divestment from tobacco companies following a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies. ACCRIP provides advice to ensure the University’s investments align with its ethical principles.

The divestment movement has continued to grow since then. Addressing issues including genocide in Darfur and human rights violations in Palestine, students have launched a number of divestment campaigns at Brown and across the United States.

The Darfur genocide sparked student demands to divest from companies supporting the Sudanese government’s actions in the region. In February 2006, the Corporation divested, following an ACCRIP recommendation.

Students organized another successful divestment campaign in 2010 when they asked the University not to reinvest in HEI Hotels and Resorts, which had restricted its workers’ ability to unionize. Brown students in support of divestment held a fake wedding on the Main Green to symbolize the union of the Corporation and HEI that would occur with renewed investments.

Students for Justice in Palestine similarly called for divestment from Boeing and the construction company Caterpillar, which an SJP pamphlet said supplied the Israel Defense Forces with planes and bulldozers respectively. SJP brought a banner to the Main Green rhetorically asking students, “Do you want your University profiting from apartheid?” to support its cause and link divestment in Israel to the 1980s apartheid divestment.

In 2012, ACCRIP encouraged dialogue on the issue in a letter to the Corporation but did not take a position on possible divestment. Since then, there has been no change in Brown’s investment.


Divestment today

Divest Coal is part of a nationwide movement and has spanned more than 300 college campuses and 100 city and state campaigns.

To build its campaign at Brown, Divest Coal looked to prior divestment efforts in tobacco, Sudan and HEI as the “models that have worked under the current system, where there is a need to go through an administrative process,” said Divest Coal member Ryan Greene ’16, who joined the Divest Coal movement at its inception during his first week of school.

The size of the 1980s campaign “was a big part of what made it powerful,” Greene said.

After rallies and protests throughout the winter and spring of last year, the Corporation acknowledged an April 2013 recommendation from ACCRIP supporting divestment from the 15 coal companies at its biannual May meeting.

Some college administrators have argued divesting from coal could have negative effects for universities. Christianna Wood, a trustee of Vassar College, said in a New York Times article this month that divestment could cause colleges to lose both money and a voice in company proceedings.

Divest Coal members disagreed.

“The question at hand is not whether or not Brown is going to lose money — that’s not even part of the consideration,” Greene said.

“The main thrust of divestment is that you’re able to erode the social license of these companies through collective action — schools, cities, churches — that can lead to real change,” said Tammy Jiang ’16, another Divest Coal member.

Divest Coal members said they are eagerly looking forward to the Corporation’s October meeting, which may promise a decision on the divestment issue.

“There is going to be a lot (of) pressure on the administration to vote yes to divestment in October,” Greene said.

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  1. Yet again some misguided and short-lived activism from the entitled few. Give them about ten years until they realize that not only is their comfortable position based on such endeavors, but that alternatives are imaginary at best. Good luck kids!

    • Elaborate on the comfortable position comment. As for the alternatives, the point of the divest movement is for alternatives to be rationally considered. Currently there’s a clear imbalance. Despite many fossil fuel companies being in the Fortune 500, the US government supplies them with more subsidies than they do fledgling renewable industries. A major reason that fossil fuel companies are able to achieve this imbalance is the exorbitant amount of money they spend on lobbying and campaign contributions. It’s estimated that for every $1 the fossil fuel industry spends on campaign contributions and lobbying, it gets $59 in subsidies. We want to generate a social stigma that makes these campaign contributions and lobbying more trouble than they’re worth.

  2. The Corporations divestment actions are for show. So they divested $20 of investments from Sudan. How about Israel. Oh wait, never mind.

    • Try to grasp a basic understanding before you write the movement off. Look at Tammy’s last quote. It’s not about the economic penalty. It’s about the stigma created by treating coal investments as filth. We want politicians to feel humiliated when coal industry money influences their legislative decisions.

    • Look at Tammy’s last quote. It’s not about the economic penalty. It’s about the stigma created by treating coal investments as filth. We want politicians to feel humiliated when coal industry money influences their legislative decisions.

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