University News

Fossil Free Brown makes less noise than peer groups

While Harvard students sue school and Yale students hold sit-in, Brown activists are quiet

Contributing Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2015

Students with the group formerly known as DIvest Coal rallied outside University Hall in 2012 for the University to divest from coal companies.

While Student activists campaigning for fossil fuel divestment at higher education institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford University have recently captured headlines. Stanford divested from coal, Harvard student activists took legal action and Yale student activists staged sit-ins within the past year, Brown’s movement — led by Fossil Free Brown — has remained relatively quiet this year.

Fossil Free Brown  is the new name of the student group Brown Divest Coal, which failed to convince the University to divest in October 2013.

A year and a half later, the University stands by its position. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, “determined that divestment from coal companies was not the right tool for achieving the societal goals to which we all aspire,” wrote Mark Nickel, former interim vice president for communications, in a statement to The Herald.

The process that led to the decision against divestment allowed for a full exchange of views, Nickel wrote, adding that the University “would not take lightly any request to repeat its former process without the availability of new information or new arguments.”

Fossil Free Brown has expanded on the mission of Brown Divest Coal, adding divestment from natural gas and oil to its cause. The group has spent the past year trying to regain the movement’s momentum following the University’s rejection of divestment, said Austen Sharpe ’18, a member of Fossil Free Brown.

One measure Fossil Free Brown has taken to further its cause this year is launching a new petition to demand that the University divest from the 200 publicly traded companies holding the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. “The petition is kind of like a tool for us to explain the concept to people,” said Kai Salem ’18, adding that over 500 people have signed the petition so far.

In addition to students, alums and faculty members have also signed the petition and made other tangible contributions to the divestment campaign, Salem said. “We probably have a better base in alums than we do with the students,” she said. Young alums have helped Fossil Free Brown organize, while older alums have contributed to financing the campaign, she added.

While many professors in the Department of Environmental Studies support Fossil Free Brown, tenured professors have more leeway to involve themselves in controversial topics, Salem said.

More proactive steps to push for divestment, such as rallies and sit-ins, offer other ways to support the movement, Sharpe said.

Fossil Free Brown has also hung banners around campus, knocked on doors and set up tables to raise awareness about its cause, Salem said. The group held a protest on the Main Green in February, and more rallies are planned for the future, she added.

Meanwhile, activists at Harvard and Yale have caused particularly large stirs this year.

Yale students staged a sit-in inside the office of the university’s president April 9. Yale personnel threatened the students with arrest, and they were fined $92 each for occupying a campus building, the Yale Daily News reported.

At Harvard, seven undergraduates, graduate students and law students filed a lawsuit in November against the president and fellows of the school for what they termed “mismanagement of charitable funds,” the New York Times reported. The lawsuit has since been dismissed, but the students are appealing the decision.

Fossil Free Brown does not plan on filing its own lawsuit because the group does not have law students, Sharpe said.

Still, Sharpe and Salem both said they are confident the University will reconsider divestment. The movement is “not just going to die,” Sharpe said, adding that the University is under pressure to reconsider the issue because of successful campaigns at other colleges.

But the University is unlikely to divest from fossil fuels simply because other schools are doing so, said Stephen Nelson, associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and a senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown. The decision to divest will be made “campus by campus rather than (like) falling dominoes,” Nelson said.

If pressured to divest, Corporation members could even go in the opposite direction and become more determined not to divest, Nelson said. “Nobody wants to look like they’ve been bullied into this,” he said.

Nelson also noted that investment in alternative, possibly more environmentally friendly industries  could slow the rate of the University’s endowment growth.

Fossil Free Brown does not have any specific ideas about investments to replace those the University currently has in fossil fuel companies. “One of the reasons we didn’t focus on re-investment was because we didn’t see that as our place,” Sharpe said. 

“We don’t want to tell the University exactly what to do. We just want to tell them that (investment in fossil fuels) is not okay,” Salem added.

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