Last Thursday, Fossil Free Yale staged a sit-in at Woodbridge Hall. Among the many refrains chanted by FFY, one stood out in particular: “Whose side is Yale on?”
One argument for fossil fuel divestment goes something like this: The fossil fuel industry harms the environment and disproportionately affects marginalized communities. When Ivy League schools like Yale divest from fossil fuels, it sends a powerful message. If enough institutions divest, the fossil fuel industry will depreciate and, eventually, die. Therefore, we should divest from fossil fuels.
This argument assumes that Yale’s actions will have a major long-term effect on the world economy. That’s certainly possible, but very hard to prove. It also ignores divestment’s potential costs, which could cut into financial aid, grants and even scientific research that may end up mitigating climate change.
The more convincing argument is that, regardless of financial impact, Yale has a moral obligation to divest from industries that exploit the poor and threaten the human race. We should support divestment on principle, even if doing so comes at a hefty cost to the University.
Yet FFY’s slogan is not “divest for justice” or “fossil fuels kill.” Rather, the tagline repeated ad nauseam is “Whose side is Yale on?”
This question puzzles me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it has an obvious answer: Yale is on the side of the students.
The Yale Corporation decided against divestment last August. This might be because all its members are greedy nihilists with dollar signs in their eyes, as some have alleged. Or it might be that the Corporation did its job, calculated the risks of divestment and decided that it wasn’t worth it.
The endowment funds research grants and fellowships. It lets Yale offer generous financial aid packages that far outclass most of the competition (despite frequent assertions to the contrary). Above all else, it makes sure that Yale remains one of best institutions of higher education in the world. So when 8 percent of Yale’s endowment is on the line, prudence is more than understandable.
It’s true that 83 percent of the undergraduates who responded to the YCC’s online referendum support divestment. That sounds like a compelling number. But the response rate of that referendum was roughly 50 percent. We can only say with certainty that 43 percent of Yalies definitely support divestment. The rest either oppose it or — more damningly — did not even care enough to complete a survey.
But it’s a pretty safe bet that a greater percentage of Yale students care more about their own education and financial security than a tenuous utilitarian calculus or abstract moral principles. Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the protesters who flocked to Woodbridge Hall last week.
Forty-eight students from FFY sat in Woodbridge Hall. But after being threatened with arrest, most students decided to leave. The 19 students who remained were fined and issued infractions.
All of us voluntarily choose to attend Yale and, by doing so, we legitimize its practices. If Yale contributes to exploitation and oppression worldwide — as FFY claims it does by not divesting — then every student here is implicitly valuing their own education over any deontic prohibitions on the fossil fuel industry. The Yale Corporation seems to agree with them.
Does this mean it’s wrong to support divestment? Not necessarily. If you think human rights matter more than your own Ivory Tower education, and that divestment furthers those human rights, the pro-divestment position is perfectly coherent.
What does not make sense is the equation between morality and public opinion. To ask, “whose side is Yale on,” is to implicitly suggest student input matters in the debate over divestment. But the reason divestment is good has nothing to do with what people think! It has to do with coastal flooding, the spread of disease and climate change’s disproportionately large affect on already marginalized communities. No amount of education justifies such human costs.
The majority does not determine what is right and what is wrong. Morality is not democratic and FFY should stop pretending otherwise. If divestment is merely a cost-benefit analysis, we should seriously consider the Corporation’s assessment that the costs outweigh the benefits. If divestment is about rights and principles and the stakes are as high as FFY claims, then we all have either a moral obligation to accept those steep costs, or to immediately withdraw from such a morally impoverished university. But most of Yale just isn’t willing to do that. Seeing as most of them aren’t even willing to risk an arrest, I don’t think FFY is either.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .