Huddled underground in a Bass Library study room during the honeymoon after shopping period but before midterms, a group of us debated whether to call ourselves “Divest Yale” or “Fossil Free Yale” — or whether we needed a name at all.
We weren’t anything yet. Over the summer, we’d read Bill McKibben’s case for divestment from fossil fuel companies. After a couple weeks of generating interest within preexisting campus groups and sending invitations to any panlist we could find, we hunkered down and discussed our goal. We all agreed there was an urgent, moral imperative to take action on climate change as quickly and as effectively as we could. Political gridlock precluded government action, so societal change needed to start in the private sector. Yale’s massive endowment was led by a uniquely influential investment manager. Yale divesting from fossil fuels would have momentous symbolic and tangible impact.
When it came to the next steps, though, students disagreed. The folks who supported “Divest Yale” looked toward the recently formed “Divest Harvard,” whose members had immediately thrown themselves into conflict with their administration, writing op-eds, staging protests and getting arrested.
A few of us, though, resisted following in the tracks of Harvard. In our research, we’d learned that Yale already had a guidebook — “The Ethical Investor” — and two committees — the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility and Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility — devoted to implementing principles of ethical investment. As we read through “The Ethical Investor,” we realized all Yale had to do was follow its own manual. Great!
We decided to begin by presenting Yale with the opportunity to “do the right thing” easily and quickly. At the impending annual public ACIR committee meeting, we would persuade Yale to be the first major university to go Fossil Free.
A subgroup of us split off to master the moral framework of “The Ethical Investor” and write the report. We documented all of the latest climate science so that the urgency would be irrefutable. Based on the guidebook, we suggested that Yale first use its rights as a shareholder to engage with the worst fossil fuel companies and divest from those that didn’t respond. We drew flowcharts. The report came in at 96 pages.
At the end of our presentation to the ACIR, one member said, “This is the best report I’ve ever seen presented to the committee.” We were exhausted. Yet we were hopeful that the ACIR would issue its recommendations to compel the University to act. This was January 2013.
A few weeks ago, in April 2021, Yale announced it will begin the process of naming and divesting from those fossil fuel companies which do not meet a new set of standard. Yale based the decision on “The Ethical Investor.”
The bearer of the news was Jonathan Macey, the law professor who has continuously chaired the ACIR since we first presented eight years ago, and with whom we personally met dozens of times in the semesters following our initial presentation.
In the intervening decade, two generations of students, alumni and faculty, of passionate Yalies, never gave up. Student government referendums were passed, football fields were stormed and scores of students were arrested — sometimes twice.
The soundness of the case for Fossil Free Yale never changed.
We are writing now for two reasons.
First, to express gratitude for the painstaking work of so many activists who sacrificed immense time, energy and, in some cases, physical safety to budge one of the largest institutions on the planet. The strategy of students shifted to confrontational activism precisely because the ACIR and CCIR did not fulfill the promise of an efficient, transparent process. We would especially like to acknowledge student activists of color and all students for whom the innumerable hours devoted to the cause took a disproportionate toll. This long-fought change is due to your sustained advocacy, full stop.
Second, to address you, the current student readers.
To all who are feeling discouraged about the state of our University, society or world and aren’t sure whether advocating for change is worthwhile or futile — remember that in this case, continued activism led to significant action. To the next group of students huddling in an underground basement or over Zoom, calibrate your ambitions high and keep fighting.
Remember that action from large institutions, as a rule, comes late. Here’s a quote from the first paragraph of our 2013 report: “The 2010 World Bank World Development Report and United Nations Environmental Programme Report declare that inaction by 2020 would make stabilization of global temperatures nearly impossible.” While there is yet time to mitigate the worst of climate change, it’s beyond time to act quickly.
So please, don’t let Jonathan Macey and the Yale Corporation celebrate their announcement without holding them accountable to follow through. This one is easy — they said they will publish the list of companies they deem merit divestment. Make sure you see that list. The complexity of the endowment obscures Yale’s complete holdings, but the first layer of direct investments is publicly disclosed in the SEC’s annual Form 13F. And you should take Macey at his word, quoted recently, that “I think student pressure will be great” and can spur “faster and better action.” Just, as you take him up on his word, remember to bring a pinch of salt.
Editor’s note: The original version of this piece read “A few weeks ago, in April 2021, Yale finally committed to fully divest while engaging with the worst fossil fuel companies.” This was changed to “A few weeks ago, in April 2021, Yale announced it will begin the process of naming and divesting from those fossil fuel companies which do not meet a new set of standard.”