Hundreds of students interrupted their classes at noon Wednesday with alarms, speeches and chants before walking out of seminars and lectures to condemn the Yale Investments Office’s holdings in fossil fuel companies and Puerto Rican debt.
The students, coordinated by a coalition of campus environmentalist groups, assembled on Cross Campus before taking the protest outside of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, which houses a variety of administrative offices. The strike comes days after a series of climate-change demonstrations –– including one in New Haven this past Friday –– across the world, inspiring millions of people to take to the streets. On the Facebook event page, 555 students marked themselves as having attended the strike, and an additional 650 marked “interested.”
Well into the demonstration on Cross Campus, Nora Heaphy ’21, a member of Fossil Free Yale and an organizer of the protest, estimated the turnout in front of Sterling Memorial Library to be in between 500 and 600 people. Heaphy told the News that after reviewing photos of the event, “soliciting a bunch of opinions” and seeing a headline in WTNH-8, the group now estimates that the demonstration saw roughly 1,000 to 1,500 participants.
“I think this absolutely defied all our expectations,” Heaphy said.
With Sterling as their backdrop, speakers from several groups led the large crowd through chants, songs and demands, inspiring snaps and cheers from more protestors on the grass.
Peter Steinmann ’22 delivered the groups’ requests to the audience.
“Disclose all investments in Puerto Rican debt,” Steinmann said. “Instruct fund managers with investments in Puerto Rican debt to cancel that debt.”
He then demanded that Yale “disclose and divest” all holdings it has in fossil fuel companies, adding that the University profits from “climate destruction and the continued exploitation of Puerto Rico.” Steinmann joined his peers in demanding the University invest in “our future and in our city.”
Professor Sarah Mahurin allowed students to leave her course, “African American Autobiography,” to attend the strike, according to Irene Vázquez ’21. But in the case of some courses, midterms and other obstacles prevented students from leaving, Heaphy said. Still, she added, student activists joined the walkout after their tests.
“We can’t ignore what’s going on,” said Katherine Matsukawa ’23, who attended the demonstration with classmates from her Spanish seminar after walking out. “It’s a testament to where Yale is going and where it needs to be.”
According to a report on its website, the Yale Investments Office, which oversees the University’s almost $30 billion endowment, decided in 2014 and 2016 to retain its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Because of increased pressure from student groups, the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, which is composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni, addressed the issue of Puerto Rican debt. But they found that divestment “is not warranted when an investor is abiding by the applicable legal framework.” In the ACIR’s January 2018 decision, they added “there have been no allegations of unethical debt collection efforts or practices.”
Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart told the News that the University does not disclose its investments. But, she said, the Yale Investments Office has asked managers of the endowment not to “hold” companies “that refuse to acknowledge the social and financial costs of climate change” and those that don’t take “economically sensible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Regarding the protest, Peart said, “our students are engaged and passionate, and freedom of expression is central to their education. Peaceful demonstrations about various issues are going to be part of that from time to time.”
Criticism of the University and its endowment continued throughout the demonstration, which moved to SSS about an hour after it started. There, activists held signs, chanted and taped posters to the building’s walls while Dean Marvin Chun and other administrators watched. Above the building’s entryway, activists also hung a sign – reading “YALE IS COMPLICIT” – commemorating the strike. Once identified, Chun was confronted by Heaphy and other vest-wearing activists, who pressed him on the endowment and student activism while recording him on their phones.
Chun told the protesters and the News he could provide no comment about the walkout’s demands. But he added that he “would definitely be interested in meeting with students.”
“I’m more than happy to chat with the students,” he said.
One of the immediate goals for the rally was to encourage attendees to refrain from donating to Yale until their demands are met. Heaphy said over 400 people had already signed the pledge by the time of the walkout. By Wednesday night, the total number of pledges reached over 1,000. More pledges could come, she said, thanks to her team’s efforts.
“We’re more hopeful than we’ve been in the past now that there’s a massive movement to hold Yale accountable,” she said.
If Yale does not meet their demands, Heaphy added that the University “can expect escalated, direct action through the semester.” The specifics of this action are in development, she said.
The student groups that organized the meeting included Environmental Justice at Yale, Fossil Free Yale and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.
Matt Kristoffersen | firstname.lastname@example.org