Yale Daily News

Student organizers from the Endowment Justice Coalition and other affiliated groups are occupying Cross Campus from Oct. 22 to Oct. 24 to demand the University’s divestment from holdings in the fossil fuel industry and the Puerto Rican debt.

For three days, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, protesters will drape banners with slogans like “Cancel the Debt” and “Another World is Possible” on the quad. According to organizers, the occupation of Cross Campus will consist of no more than two cohorts of 10 people at any given time. Another banner on cross campus, emblazoned with Chief Investment Officer David Swensen’s phone number, reminds students of another way to participate in the group’s advocacy efforts — by calling Swensen to demand change.

“It is indefensible that Yale continues to invest its money in fossil fuel companies that are causing humanitarian crises and ecological devastation on a massive global scale,” Rachel Pontious ’24 said.

In response, University spokeswoman Karen Peart said that Yale has adopted divestment policies with respect to companies that commit grave social injury and has “always been able to divest the offending company.”

Regardless of whether students are currently in New Haven, organizers said, they can participate in an organized effort to call University President Peter Salovey, Chief Investment Officer David Swensen and members of the Yale Corporation to demand that the Board of Trustees disclose Yale’s investments, practice endowment transparency, divest from fossil fuels, cancel their holdings in distressed Puerto Rican debt and reinvest in both sustainable initiatives and the New Haven community.

A suggested script distributed by organizers instructs participants to articulate the urgency of climate change, demand the University’s fund managers to cancel their holdings in Puerto Rican debt and reinvest those funds into New Haven.

On the morning of the demonstration’s first day, Salovey announced the establishment of a committee charged with evaluating Yale’s current investment policies and holdings in companies producing fossil fuels, drawing mixed responses from students who expressed both hope and skepticism at the committee’s ability to influence the University’s investment practices. 

Yale’s endowment — the collection of assets intended to sustain the University’s operations in perpetuity — earned a 6.8 percent investment return in the last fiscal year, amounting to a total of $31.2 billion as of June 30, 2020. Managed by the Yale Investments Office, the endowment counts within its portfolio restricted gifts from donors and holdings in venture capital, foreign equity and real estate. As of 2020, SEC filings indicate that Yale has invested at least $454 million into corporations that are involved in the exploration or extraction of fossil fuels.

Pontious and other Endowment Justice Coalition members said that the Investment Office should pull their holdings from companies involved in the exploration or extraction of fossil fuels as well as their indirect investments in the Puerto Rican government’s debt.

“These Endowment Justice Coalition organizers came to me with the best of intentions and wanted support for Yale’s divestment of fossil fuels, but also wanted to support us,” said Christian Milian-Santiago ’21, president of Despierta Boricua, Yale’s Puerto Rican student organization. “The movement is about bi-directional support and care.”

The University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility concluded in January 2018 that divestment from Puerto Rican debt is not warranted when an investor follows the law and appropriately represents the debtor’s interests. Its chair, Jonathan Macey LAW ’82, has also pointed out that there have been no allegations of unethical debt collection efforts or practices. 

The Endowment Justice Coalition was formed in 2018 and is now composed of member groups including Fossil Free Yale, Despierta Boricua, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, Association of Native Americans at Yale and the Yale College Council.

The demands currently articulated by student endowment justice activists resemble those of years past, but the pandemic’s public safety guidelines have demanded organizers to reimagine the protest’s form.

Endowment Justice Coalition organizers have cordoned off sections of cross campus with white lines demarcating social distancing requirements. Volunteer COVID-19 marshals are monitoring demonstrators’ mask usage and proper distancing as well as enforcing the community compact’s 10-person gathering limit per cohort of protestors. Passersby may also participate so long as they register with organizers and the total group’s size does not exceed 20.

Should participants in the occupation consistently refuse to comply with public health guidelines, organizers have agreed upon a withdrawal plan to move the event online.

Peart said that administrators communicated COVID-19 health concerns with protest organizers and consulted them on their plans to respect Yale property prior to the occupation. But Peart affirmed organizers’ right to free expression.

Eleven months have passed since the staged demonstration interrupting the Yale-Harvard football game drew national attention to the coalition’s divestment demands. With no football game and no crowds in sight this year, student organizers have turned further back into Yale’s history for another source of inspiration: the 1986 student occupation on Beinecke Plaza in response to the University’s stock holdings of companies doing business in South Africa during its apartheid years.

According to Pontious, what this year’s demonstration lacks in crowd size, it makes up for in length.

Elea Hewitt ’22, a member of the EJC and ANAAY who is currently taking a leave of absence and not in New Haven, said that she is still planning to attend the phone-in session.

“Climate issues are Indigenous issues because Indigenous peoples and other less privileged members of our modern society are those who will feel the effects of the climate crisis first,” said Hewitt, who is Diné. “[The] fossil fuel industry has demonstrated time and time again that their whole business is based on unethical exploitation and harvest of nonrenewable natural resources.”

Over the course of the three days, the occupation will feature speakers from EJC member organizations, including ANAAY and Despierta Boricua. Representatives from New Haven Rising, a climate advocacy group, and the Yale Fair Share Coalition, a group calling on Yale to increase its financial contributions to New Haven, will also speak.

The final day of the action, Oct. 24, also coincides with an eight-hour virtual climate strike hosted by Students for International Divestment Day, a broad coalition of high school and university students across the country. Saturday’s national event will also broadcast speakers including Yale Forward’s Maggie Thomas ENV ’15 and environmental activist Bill McKibben.

This is the coalition’s first in-person event of the year. According to the organization’s media coordinator, Josie Steuer Ingall ’24, most of the group’s early-semester programming went to support affiliate organizations including Black Students for Disarmament at Yale.

While the pandemic has not changed the coalition’s core message, organizers explained that the onset of the pandemic has only intensified the urgency of their demands and served as a reminder that those “most vulnerable to injustice and exploitation are Indigenous, Black and brown people.”

“Yale should invest not only in their students’ education but also in their students’ ability to operate in a world that is going to be alive and sustainable in our future,” Hewitt said.

The Yale College Council Senate voted unanimously to join the Endowment Justice Coalition in February 2020.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu

Correction, Oct. 23: An earlier version of this story said that Y2Y New Haven is a member organization of the EJC. Y2Y is a non-political organization. The story has been updated.

Rose Horowitch covers Woodbridge Hall. She previously covered sustainability and the University's COVID-19 response. She is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history.