On Tuesday, Fossil Free Yale — the student group fighting for Yale to divest its $25 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry — met with the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility for the eighth time in three years.
Four members of our group presented a new proposal for fossil fuel divestment. Our requests were simple: that the ACIR release a public statement in support of divestment, and that members of Fossil Free Yale be allowed to present our case directly to members of the Yale Corporation’s Committee on Investor Responsibility, with whom we have never been allowed to meet.
Following the presentation, Fossil Free Yale and 45 divestment supporters stood and left the meeting. Our abrupt departure was an expression of our frustration at the lack of administrative engagement and our assertion that divestment cannot wait.
We have traced and retraced our steps through the available administrative channels to dead end after dead end. We have written reports. We have written letters. We have collected signatures. We have acted. Yale is stalling.
Some people have told us that “this is how things work” or that “institutions don’t change overnight,” as though we aren’t aware. We are not surprised by the institutional inertia we have faced, but we refuse to accept Yale’s stagnancy because this inaction has real, unjust and deadly ramifications. We see this stagnancy as an unwillingness to take responsibility for the University’s very real role in the world beyond Yale. When confronted, the University demonstrated that they would rather arrest their students than engage in a challenging and crucial conversation.
The Corporation cannot continue to deflect divestment. For too long they have done so on the basis that the fossil fuel industry, in the CCIR’s words, does not cause “grave social injuries.” We know that this claim is false, or that it betrays a very dangerous understanding of who counts as being part of the social fabric in which one could be injured — i.e. who counts as people.
We know that Exxon, Shell and other fossil fuel companies have been covering up their knowledge of fossil fuels’ contributions to climate change. We know that Corporation member Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV ’80, the previous CEO of BHP Billiton, which was owned by Shell, has a vested interest in turning a blind eye to grave social harms.
Let’s look at fracking sites, which disproportionately disregard the rights of low-income communities and communities of Color to a clean, healthy environment and drinking supply. Surely, recent events in Flint, Michigan demonstrate that this type of disregard is not singular.
The CCIR’s interpretation of “social injury” warrants further examination.
The Yale Corporation is content with our continuing investment in the fossil fuel industry, choosing willfully to ignore the industry’s sinister political role in climate denial, pollution and political corruption.
Yale has a huge endowment. This endowment allegedly exists to advance knowledge, to research and to teach. More broadly, in the words of the Yale College Mission Statement, the University should “develop [students’] intellectual, moral, civic and creative capacities to the fullest.” But our investment in an inherently damaging, exploitative and extractive industry entrenched in a network of shadow power reveals our institutional tendency to rely upon a limited “moral capacity,” a stinted moral imagination.
This stinted moral imagination occurs when the University becomes so preoccupied with an unquenchable profit motive that it does not consider the source of its money. The way we currently manage our endowment necessarily requires that we close our eyes to the injustice to which we contribute and stifle impertinent questions. We operate with a lack of systemic empathy.
Perhaps this is why FFY fights for fossil fuel divestment; if we don’t — and sometimes even if we do — we are guilty by association. The Yale Corporation’s demonstration that they don’t care about the source of their money makes us suspect that maybe they never have. Maybe this is the same limited moral imagination that allowed Yale’s first scholarships to be funded by slave-trading money. Perhaps it was the same drive that led Yale officials to oppose the construction of what would have been the country’s first black college in New Haven because, according to Yale officials in 1831, such an institution would have been “incompatible with the prosperity of Yale.” Maybe this limited moral imagination, which ascribes injustice as natural, has always been integral to the Yale we know, the Yale we love.
This is a terrifying possibility.
But this need not be the case. We have watched Next Yale expand the moral imagination of ourselves, the campus, the administration and beyond. We work for divestment not because we want to, but because we have to protect our own futures, protect our communities and imagine a better future. We need this moral imagination more than ever if we are ever to create restorative alternatives to the path we are on right now: one of unfettered extraction.
Fossil Free Yale will continue to build its movement of students, faculty and alumni until the Corporation divests. We imagine something better and we hope Yale will, too.
Cassandra Darrow is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .