STERN: Divesting our trust

A Stern Perspective

Alexandra Barlowe ’17, the Outreach Coordinator for Fossil Free Yale, had been planning on sleeping in. After all, it was Wednesday, Aug. 27, the first day of classes, and she wasn’t shopping anything until 1:30 p.m. But for some reason she got up early.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianWhen she opened her email, she noticed a new message, time-stamped 7:05 a.m. It was from Joy McGrath, chief of staff to President Peter Salovey. “Dear Friends,” it began, “President Salovey would like to invite you to meet with him and Professor [Jonathan] Macey [the Chair of the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility] later today, Wednesday, at 11:45 AM, in the president’s office on the first floor of Woodbridge Hall. I do not anticipate the meeting taking more than 30 minutes.”

Barlowe was stunned. 11:45 — that was less than five hours after the email was sent. On the first day of classes.

Hurriedly, Barlowe prepared for the meeting. At around 11:35, she, along with Mitch Barrows ’16, the Project Manager for FFY, and several other student members of FFY, arrived at Woodbridge Hall. Barrows was missing a class he had intended to shop in order to make it. The meeting had come almost completely out of the blue — FFY members say the only hint they had beforehand was a vague email from Macey four days earlier.

To outsiders, the meeting itself might have appeared a triumph, a classy move by an administration genuinely seeking student input. It wasn’t. The administration had already decided that it wasn’t going to divest from fossil fuel companies. “They called the meeting to see if they could do damage control,” Barlowe told me.

Barrows agreed: “They weren’t actually here to hear us out or talk about anything substantial.” In all of my discussions with FFY members who were present, one word came up over and over again: condescending. Even if you don’t believe that Yale should divest, you should be outraged by the way President Salovey and other members of the administration treated students.

At the meeting Salovey handed the students the report of the Yale Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility (CCIR). Barrows told me Salovey and the other administrators present acted as if this were something highly confidential, even though this text would go out to the entire student body just twenty minutes later — while FFY and Salovey were still meeting.

Salovey proceeded to tell the students about the CCIR’s decision to pursue several sustainability initiatives. Patrick Reed ’16, a founding member of FFY, told the News Salovey was “lecturing us.” And according to FFY members, Salovey did not even mention divestment until the students came across it themselves, buried deep within the CCIR report. Some members of FFY were irate. Some were shocked. Barlowe was resigned — she was just tired of being lectured at.

For the next hour or so, the students shared their concerns with Salovey. But soon they saw it was futile. “Salovey let us talk,” Barlowe sighed, “but he wasn’t really listening.”

Salovey told the students that this meeting fit neatly with the emphasis on free speech he had made in his Freshman Address. According to both Barlowe and Barrows, he made repeated comments about how “intelligent” he found members of FFY. He told them that, through the whole divestment debate, he had learned a lot. The FFY students with whom I spoke found this tone painfully patronizing.

According to a statement from President Salovey, he thought the meeting would be an “appropriate and courteous [way] to provide the leadership of FFY with a ‘heads-up’ about the impending decision.” He continued, “I am sorry that the time we chose for this briefing was not to some students’ liking — and I realize now that perhaps we could have selected a time other than the first day of classes.”

I find it very hard to believe Salovey and his staff were unaware that meeting on the first day of classes might prove highly inconvenient. Before Wednesday was an entire week — Camp Yale — with no classes. Further, there seems to be no good reason they could not scheduled the meeting more than a couple hours in advance. By calling this meeting with virtually no notice the administration was tactless, thoughtless or deliberately attempting to catch these student activists off guard.

Barlowe, who has been involved with the national college divestment movement, believes that this meeting exemplifies the way the Yale administration treats students in general. Other colleges, she said, “make information public that Yale doesn’t.” Other colleges “tell students where and when their boards or committees will meet.” Yale doesn’t. Barlowe says at Yale, fossil free activists never get to meet with anyone important — “or else it’s just for show.”

At one point in the meeting, members of FFY brought up the fact that former CCIR member Paul Joskow GRD ’72, former director of the TransCanada energy company, still has significant financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. At this point, students say, general counsel Dorothy K. Robinson spoke up for perhaps the first time, telling the students that, actually, Joskow was not on the CCIR when the divestment decision was technically finalized.

Barrows found this very misleading. “Obviously, this entire year they were deliberating, he was there,” he explained. Indeed, Joskow’s name appeared on the CCIR website as recently as two days before the Wednesday meeting, Reed told me. As of Wednesday, it had been taken down.

“We don’t know how intentional it is,” Barlowe commented, “but obviously it is a very interesting coincidence.”

Even beyond the Joskow erasure, this meeting strikes me as a deliberate attempt to stifle student voice. What better way to mislead the student body than to announce a whole series of sustainability initiatives right as they controversially decide not to divest? (Cough New York Times subscription cough.) What better way to act as if they’re engaging with student activists than to call a hasty, inconvenient meeting (after they’ve already made a decision) and spend it largely ignoring what the students are actually saying?

“Does Yale take climate change seriously?” I asked Barlowe toward the end of our interview.

“I would say that Yale takes the threat of bad press very seriously,” she shot back. A moment later she revised that. Yale takes climate change seriously, she said, “to the extent that we are willing to push them on it.”

A lot more pushing is coming up.

Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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