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The Past, Present, and Future of Fossil Fuel Divestment at UChicago
Over ten years of divestment student activism has fallen flat in face of an administration set on political neutrality. Could that ever change?
February 19, 2022
The facade of the William Eckhardt Research Center is made of glass. Stand far enough away directly across from Eckhardt, and the glass renders a surprisingly clear reflection of yourself, backdropped by the Biological Sciences Learning Center located just across the street. Concentrate, and you can catch the slight distortion of the reflection from the ordered phalanx of rectangular glass panels that make up the entirety of Eckhardt’s surface. It acts as a one-way mirror: while you can’t see Eckhardt’s interior, those inside the building can clearly see you.
On November 13, 2015, then-University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer and the University’s board of directors would have been able to clearly see a crowd of around 100 divestment activists gathered around Eckhardt’s glass exterior in protest, holding up paper signs for the Board of Trustees’ perusal from inside the building. The group gathered just as Zimmer’s speech to the Board was about to commence.
The protest was organized by the UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN), a group formed in 2012 to urge the University to pull its assets from the fossil fuel industry. They formed a line. They chanted, loudly.
Someone inside Eckhardt lowered the curtains from the inside, blocking the Board’s view of the protesters. The event continued.
Campaigns for fossil fuel divestment aim to “revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry” by pulling assets from the fossil fuel industry. Though it was first seen as a radical proposition, the cause has been gradually embraced by numerous universities and cities alike within the last decade. Now, divestment is a $39.88 trillion movement that major universities such as Cambridge, Brown, and Harvard have adopted.
Absent in their ranks is UChicago, whose $8.6 billion endowment still reaps dividends from the fossil fuel industry. Though the University of Chicago holds a long history of divestment activism dating back a full decade, its more-than-vocal student activism has been largely unsuccessful in the face of a conservative and unyielding administration. Nevertheless, in light of the recent wave of national divestment successes and a changing cultural outlook on divestment, many activists remain optimistic about the possibility of divestment in UChicago’s future.
Humble Beginnings: 2012– 2014
2012 saw the first wave of a vocal divestment movement at UChicago. One group which spearheaded the student divestment campaign was UCAN, which was originally created in 2010 as a political action branch of the campus-based environmental group, the Green Campus Initiative. The group joined city environmental groups in the push to close down two coal-fired plants in Chicago. UCAN’s campus-oriented work began in late 2012 when the group pivoted to fossil fuel divestment and launched Stop Funding Climate Change, UChicago (SFCC), a student-run divestment campaign.
In 2013, UChicago’s Student Government held an online referendum on divestment. Co-coordinated by the SFCC, the referendum asked: “Should the University shift its investment strategy to account for the environmental impact of oil, gas, and coal used by the companies it invests in?” The referendum was approved by over 70% of the student body, with 2,183 votes for “yes” out of a total of more than 3,100 votes. Though informal, it was a display of the broad support for divestment in the student body.
“[The referendum] will show the Board of Trustees that it should consider divestment as a conscientious move in the interest of its students, since climate change is becoming a very real concern among us—after all, our generation will inherit the bulk of the wreckage caused by the unsustainable culture of subsidized fossil fuel extraction,” wrote student activist Natalie Wright (A.B. ’16) on UCAN’s website at the time.
Pointing to this consensus, activists from UCAN submitted a petition to the administration for further discussion on divestment. In response, the administration requested a report on divestment that would present a comprehensive overview of the campaign’s arguments.
In hindsight, former SFCC co-coordinator Johnathan Guy (A.B. ’17) is skeptical that these were good-faith negotiations. “In reality, this was a delay tactic to get us to focus all of our energy on writing this report rather than organizing to put pressure on the administration or the Board of Trustees. But [we] didn’t know any better,” Guy told The Maroon.
In 2014, UCAN delivered their Fossil Fuel Divestment Report in a meeting with the administration. The report was a 59-page tome, complete with charts and footnotes. It was composed of six sections: four separate scientific, moral, institutional, and financial cases for divestment; a response to counterarguments; and an outline of possible actions post-divestment.
“There is little debate in scientific academia over the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the ability of humans to mitigate its effects,” the report stated. It emphasized the symbolic significance of divestment, arguing that the core ethos of the movement was more based on social stigmatization than any resulting financial impact of divestment: “Divestment is a signal to companies with enormous amounts of money and influence that our institution does not support, and is unwilling to contribute to, the destruction of the environment and of our future and that we do support a transition to renewable sources of energy that will not jeopardize humanity’s future.”
According to Guy, the administration was reluctant to grant significant consideration to UCAN’s demands. That is, until Darren Reisberg, then-Secretary of the University, promised the group in writing that they could meet with some members of the Board of Trustees to present their case.
By winter of 2014, however, it was clear that UCAN activists would not get their meeting. The long-promised meeting was called off. According to Guy, Reisberg told UCAN that he had overpromised the activists since he was new to his position.
“[Reisberg] said that at the time that he had made that promise he didn’t understand the capabilities of his position, and after consulting with the president and the provost, he decided that it was an ‘inappropriate form of engagement,’ to use the administration-speak,” Guy told The Maroon in 2015.
Reisberg did not respond to The Maroon‘s requests for comment.
Instead, the administration offered UCAN a spot at a student group dinner with a trustee, but the activists declined, with Guy calling the offer at the time “egregiously insufficient for any type of meaningful dialogue.”
A year later, UCAN began planning what would be called the “Walk-Back,” a pointed symbolic jab at Reisberg, who had “walked back” on his promise to secure UCAN a meeting with the trustees.
It was a warm spring afternoon the day they walked. On April 17, 2015, around 100 protesters dressed up in business attire to “Walk Back” from the Booth School to Levi Hall, chanting and holding hand-painted signs with slogans like “The Administration Walked Back On Its Promise!”
Students were sunbathing on the quad, chatting, and enjoying the nice weather. Soon, the spectacle had attracted their attention. Some watched, and some even got up to walk with the protesters.
“I just remember being really energized by how many people showed up,” said Guy. “[There were] around 300 or 400 students and more joined spontaneously.”
The walk took the protesters to Levi Hall, where the administration’s offices were located. Guy, who coordinated the campaign, gave a speech on the steps of the building. The plan was for protestors to continue the chant while SFCC representatives Kristin Lin, Kenzo Esquivel, Sam Zacher, and Guy went in to discuss their divestment goals with the administration. They wanted to rehash plans for the meeting Reisburg had canceled, but Reisburg was not in his office at the time.
New Tactics: 2014–2017
After news of the canceled meeting in late 2014, SFCC attempted to find other ways of engaging with community. By spring 2014, it seemed that SFCC had found meaningful support with the University faculty. On April 17, 2015, 14 out of 16 faculty members in the Department of Ecology and Evolution signed a letter addressed to the Office of the President, urging a rapid divestment from fossil fuels.
SFCC also successfully pressured the Council of the University Senate to discuss divestment. The University Senate, composed of 51 periodically elected faculty members, is the reigning body over most University policies which are not governed by the trustees or the Office of the President.
History of Religions professor Bruce Lincoln, who served on the council at the time, told The Maroon that with the exception of one member, “no one was opposed to divestment and nobody thought it was inappropriate for us or the Board to be seriously considering the issue.”
However, the faculty members in the council could not vote to take action on divestment—on matters related to the endowment, the council could only serve an advisory role to the Board of Trustees, who hold the final say over the University’s financial decisions.
Further meetings with the administration proved to be unproductive for the activists. Guy recalled the administration’s mounting displeasure with the campaign. However, he speculated that the administration was using the Walk-Back to rationalize their rejection of the campaign’s demands. Guy said, “The administration said, ‘This is so unproductive, we would have been willing to work with you. How do you think this will look now?’” he said. “And of course, they were never interested in doing this in the first place.”
In October of the next year, President Zimmer told The Maroon that he remained unconvinced by the 2013 divestment report, not finding the arguments “convincing, compared to the arguments the other way.” He argued that divestment was not the best way to combat climate change, advocating instead for the University to expand on climate change and energy use research.
“If I had to report on my sense of the Board’s view of this—is that they’re unlikely to want to [divest],” Zimmer said.
In response, members of SFCC wrote an open letter to President Zimmer and Secretary Reisburg on November 4th, 2015. “Because our campaign has widespread and ever-growing support throughout the University community and because of the existential and unparalleled threat climate change poses to the world at large, we believe our campaign warrants a discussion—and ultimately, a vote—by the Board of Trustees,” the letter said.
In May of 2016, assisted by several other student activist groups, UCAN organized a sit-in protest in Levi Hall. Supplied with food and chant sheets, the protesters camped out on the fifth floor, in front of Provost Eric D. Isaacs’s office. Along with divestment from fossil fuels, they demanded a $15 wage for campus workers and more police accountability for the UCPD.
The protest ended just an hour after it began, when the students were told that they could face arrest or expulsion from the University—as could student body president Tyler Kissinger (A.B. ’16), who had let the protesters into the building by propping open a closed door with his backpack after getting past security by saying he was on official business. Escorted out of the building by UCPD, they kept on chanting. “We’ll be back,” they said. “We’ll be back.”
And they were. On Monday, February 22, 2016, UCAN released an open letter that urged the University to divest with over 250 faculty signatures. Simultaneously, they installed 256 orange squares on the main quad, with each square symbolizing one faculty member who signed the petition.
“The orange square has become the symbol of divestment, so we thought it would be powerful to put one in the quad for each faculty member who signed our letter,” SFCC team member Isabel Bloom told The Maroon in 2016.
The number of faculty represented by the letter encompassed over 50 faculty departments, as well as a quarter of the members of the Faculty College Council. The letter referred to climate change as a “universal and existential” threat.
“We believe that profiting from these industries conflicts with the paramount social value of avoiding significant and permanent degradation of our planet that, if left unchecked, will adversely affect all of us, personally and as an institution,” the petition said.
The event received national attention through coverage by The Guardian, which acknowledged both the University’s close connection to two “leading climate champions,” Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, and the University’s penchant to advocate for political neutrality.
The rally was SFCC’s last public event. In 2017, key leaders like Guy and his co-coordinator Sam Zacher (A.B. ’16) graduated. UCAN and Southside Solidarity Network, a social justice RSO, merged to form UChicago Student Action. In UCSA, Guy said, divestment was deprioritized for more off-campus, political-oriented activism.
Reflecting on the divestment campaign as a whole, Guy pinpointed that UCAN may have been more successful if it effectively mobilized its resources: “You need to have power and you need to be able to wield that power effectively, and we clearly didn’t succeed in that respect.”
Activists’ Hope for the Future: 2021–present
2017 marked the end of the first divestment campaign, but the student activists of the Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF) recently relaunched the campaign at the beginning of 2021.
2021 has seen a wave of successful university divestment campaigns at the national level. In fall 2021—months after student climate activists swarmed a high-profile Harvard vs. Yale football game—Harvard revised its public opposition to divestment to announce that it would allow its remaining investments to expire and “does not intend” to reinvest in the fossil fuel industry.
Divest Harvard, Harvard’s student divestment organization, declared the announcement a victory. Additionally, the group is optimistic that Harvard’s divestment decision will cause other universities to re-evaluate their stance on divestment.
“We’ve seen the impact of [divestment] in the fact that after Harvard’s decision to divest, we saw this great avalanche of other schools also committing to divest, showing that when Harvard stakes out a position on this issue, other schools see that, and they respond to that,” said Phoebe Barr, a second-year at Harvard and a member of Divest Harvard.
In the aftermath of the Harvard decision, Boston University and the University of Minnesota soon followed suit. “Harvard cracks on fossil fuels and a dam breaks,” reads a Politico headline.
EJTF hopes to leverage that momentum, urging UChicago to cut financial ties with the fossil fuel industry.
“I’ve become more and more optimistic that as the new president as well as the new CIO adjust to being administrative leaders at UChicago, they will become more open to hearing the call for divestment,” said second-year and EJTF member Sam Heintz.
The sentiment is shared by environmentalist and divestment giant Bill McKibben, who popularized divestment in 2012 with his environmental nonprofit 350.org. “When players like Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California or of Michigan, Columbia, Cornell, Brown join in, it sends a powerful signal: the smart and moral money has understood the broad arc of the future,” he wrote in an email to The Maroon.
Further remarking on the Harvard decision to divest and its potential ramifications, McKibben said that UChicago should act not because of public pressure from its students or from the Harvard decision. Instead, he wrote, the University should act because it’s a step in combatting climate change, “the gravest problem our species has ever faced.”
“Continuing to try to make a buck off the end of the world is a bad look in every way,” he wrote.
The Kalven Report
However, not all divestment activists are as optimistic about their chances. At UChicago, activists’ work has long been impeded by the University’s staunch advocacy of political neutrality, a viewpoint codified by the Kalven Report. Written in 1967 by law professor Harry Kalven, it concluded that “[t]o perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”
Time and time again, the University has argued that as an academic institution, it is unable to take political stands.
Kate Fererra, current co-coordinator of EJTF, sees the University’s recurring return to the Kalven Report as a representation of the University’s conservative ideals. “The University has made a name for themselves in the free speech on campus movement. Because they want to seem not too liberal or ‘woke’ or leftist and ‘safe-spacey,’ they cling to the Kalven report and free speech principles as a way to differentiate themselves,” Fererra said.
Jamie Kalven, the son of Harry Kalven, views the original intent of the Kalven Report as a more flexible guideline than an absolute rule.
“The University has used the Kalven Report as a kind of shield and hasn’t really engaged as much as it might in these things. To invoke it as this absolute principle is not, I think, what they had in mind. It’s important that these be real conversations, and that the University not just reflexively hold up the Kalven Report as the Holy Grail,” he told The Maroon in 2018.
Members of EJTF assert that divestment is not an essentially political decision. “Fossil fuel divestment is not diametrically opposed to the doctrine of the Kalven report. Divestment should not be something that violates that report, it’s simply a prudent financial decision responding to a proven scientific reality,” said Heintz.
Furthermore, some activists have argued that some tenets of Kalven Report can even bolster the argument for divestment.
“The Kalven report was never meant to be used as a cudgel against divestment activists,” Guy said.
As evidence, he pointed to a section of the report that reads: “From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.”
UCAN’s 2013 Divestment Report, for example, had argued that the university ought to divest because climate change was an existential threat to the university’s educational mission.
Some activists argue that divestment is no more political than the University’s green climate initiatives. In response, administrators have reiterated the tenets of the Kalven Report while pointing to the gradual progress towards environmentally conscious investing done behind the scenes. They argue instead that the University’s divestment portfolio has reflected the fossil fuel industry’s steadily declining reputation.
“Between student government and some other administrators, it seems like there’s definitely a desire to talk to students and facilitate more collaboration between students and administration, so we’re a little bit hopeful on that, but at the same time, they were very dismissive [of the campaign],” Fererra said.
Additionally, she expressed, divestment activists are fighting against the lack of endowment transparency, since the administration does not release detailed data about its budget or investments. Last year, The Maroon reported on the University’s financial ties to fossil fuels, deforestation, and weapons manufacturers.
“We don’t know [how much the endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry] because they don’t release any statistics about the endowment besides how big it is and how much it’s grown; we have no way of checking where it’s invested,” said Ferrera.
The University did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the endowment.
Law professor Todd Henderson, however, holds that economically or politically, divestment is not the best possible solution to climate change.
As a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, Henderson’s specialization in securities, regulation, and corporate law makes him an authoritative expert on financial markets. In 2015, he publicly remarked on divestment in an open letter in The Maroon, arguing against divestment as an effective tool against climate change. He confirmed that his opinions had not changed since then.
He claimed that activists underestimate the limitations of divestment as a changemaking strategy. “Selling stock as a political act does nothing to hurt the company,” he told The Maroon. He argues that this is because unlike other commodities, the price for stocks remains unchanged even when there’s diminishing demand. Hypothetically, he says, if UChicago were to sell its share in Exxon, other buyers in the market would just swoop in to buy it at the same price.
Instead, Henderson views shifting to renewable energy as a better solution to climate change.
“I’m skeptical that [divestment] would have a galvanizing effect on the public,” he said. “If UChicago were really serious [about climate change], we would put solar panels on all the roofs, switch over all the vehicles to renewables, or turn down the thermostat.”
However, some EJTF activists argue that while divestment could put a financial dent in the profits of fossil fuel industry giants like Shell, BP, and Exxon, there is simultaneously a social impact to divestment that Henderson has overlooked.
“Part of the point of divestment is to make it a public statement, to bring attention and put stigma on fossil fuel companies and create an atmosphere of pressure. With giant multimillion corporations, one university divesting isn’t necessarily going to break their budget, but if you start a wave of universities and other institutions [divesting], then you could create a lot of power,” Ferrera said.