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Divesting from fossil fuels at CUNY

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Ashley Dawson speaking at the panel, as Ana Paola White, right, looks on.
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Hunter College graduate Ana Paola White believes getting universities like CUNY to divest from fossil fuel companies isn’t as impossible as it might sound. Quoting author and activist Rachel Carson on her efforts in the 1960s to ban the pesticide DDT, she said, “Even if it looks like it can’t be done, it probably can. We just have to overcome a few obstacles.”

White, a leader of CUNY Divest, was speaking on September 22 at the Graduate Center about the campaign’s effort to divest the University’s endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and was joined by PSC members and State Senator Liz Krueger, who is seeking legislative action in Albany on fossil fuel divestment at CUNY and SUNY. The CUNY Divest campaign, which has been active for three years, may be gaining new momentum.

CUNY RESISTANCE

As White explained, the main obstacle faced by CUNY Divest has been the policies of the CUNY Board of Trustees. CUNY Divest was formed in March 2013, when students across the country were starting similar groups as part of environmental organization 350.org’s “Go Fossil Free” campaign. It has spent more than three years trying to convince the board to divest. In May 2013, the group filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain documents on the University’s fossil fuel holdings, but the administration denied it.

In August 2013, the CUNY administration invited the group to discuss the University’s investments. Two months later, administration officials told students that divestment was out of the question. In September 2014, the board discussed CUNY’s fossil fuel holdings at a meeting of its Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs. At the time, the Wall Street Journal reported that fossil fuel investments comprised about $10 million of CUNY’s $241 million endowment. Since then, CUNY Divest members have continued to testify at public board and borough meetings, but the board has not budged, arguing that divestment could limit investment returns and hurt financial aid scholarships.

ORGANIZING AT CUNY

Student and faculty activists, however, refute that claim. At least 15 groups – from student government associations to the PSC to the Graduate Center’s Doctoral Students’ Council – have passed resolutions in favor of fossil fuel divestment. The University Student Senate has done so three times, most recently in May 2015.

While CUNY is a public university system, with a smaller endowment than those of most private colleges that doesn’t lessen its ability to make an impact with divestment, campaign organizers said.

“This is a moral issue,” White said. “We know that we are participating in perpetuating climate change if we continue to have investments in these companies.”

Given CUNY’s student population of over 500,000, she said the social impact of spreading information makes up for any financial shortcomings.

The involvement of CUNY’s many different constituencies has proven vital for the movement, including the PSC’s resolution in support of divestment. “Working people have to be brought along in the shift to a sustainable society,” said Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the College of Staten Island and the event’s moderator. “It’s a majority working-class, people-of-color institution in a city where working-class, people-of-color communities are disproportionately threatened by climate change.”

POLITICAL PRESSURE

Professors, too, have a role to play, Dawson continued. “Those of us who are fortunate enough to fight for tenure and get it, we shouldn’t be afraid to be raising our voices and challenging the refusal of people like the CUNY chancellor and the people who surround him to accept divestment,” he said.

Divestment would not be new for CUNY. In the 1980s the board approved a resolution to divest from companies with operations in South Africa under apartheid, and in 1990 it voted to divest from tobacco stocks. “When we divested from tobacco, it was a really strong statement saying that we’re not going to support companies that are blatantly lying,” said White, drawing a comparison to ExxonMobil, which is under investigation by New York’s attorney general for lying about its climate change research.

Organizers hope to add fossil fuels to the list of successful divestment campaigns and are ready to try a new approach that takes advantage of CUNY’s ties to city and state government. While appealing directly to the Board of Trustees has not proven fruitful, pressuring the university through the governments that fund it might. Senator Krueger, one of the event’s panelists, supported a bill calling for divestment of the state’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies, and plans to support an upcoming bill requiring that CUNY and SUNY do the same. Whether that would clear legislative hurdles is unclear, but such action offers another potential route to divestment after years of being stonewalled by the board.

Despite frustrations over the slow pace of progress, organizers remain steadfast in their belief that divestment is the only option. As White put it, “It’s important as a university to support the right side – because we know what it is.”