On Aug. 28, President Peter Salovey gave his opening assembly address to Yale College’s class of 2025. I sat with my fellow first years in folding chairs on the Cross Campus lawn, ready to receive the wisdom and direction to commence my studies at this place which for so long had been my biggest dream. As the Glee Club struck up its rendition of “Raise Your Voices Here,” I felt a swell of hope and excitement. I’m here.
Salovey’s speech, titled “When the World Is on Fire,” urged students to continue the practice of “patient learning,” despite the many concurrent global crises we face. It was one of the most moving, personally resonant speeches I have ever heard.
I am from Northern California. I know all too well what the orange-smoked sky, charred land, canceled school, burning lungs and grief of a world on fire look and feel like.
Salovey additionally spoke of his Jewish ancestry and values, which I also share. Much of his speech centered on the words of sages from the 19th-century Lithuanian Musar ethical movement, and the inherently Jewish idea that we “must improve ourselves before looking outward at society seeking to change it.”
While Salovey spoke, I allowed myself to feel inspired. But as the robed procession ended, the chorus stopped singing, the applause faded, and as we began our time at Yale in earnest, I came to understand the contradictions behind Salovey’s words.
I didn’t know then that, according to two members of the Endowment Justice Coalition, New Haven Rising — a local economic, racial and social justice movement — had placed a brochure on every single chair on cross-campus in advance of the assembly before Yale removed them. I did not yet know that Yale’s endowment would boast a 40.2 percent return of $11.1 billion in the 2021 fiscal year, bringing the total value of Yale’s endowment to $42.3 billion.
And I was not aware that, according to an April statement by the Yale Investments Office, 2.6 percent of the University’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels. While this amount is often written off as marginal, it is important to remember that 2.6 percent of 42.3 billion dollars is nearly $1.1 billion.
By investing substantially in fossil fuel industries, the University is doing the opposite of putting out the world’s fires: by investing in the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the University is fanning the flames of the climate crisis.
I now feel betrayed by Salovey’s words — my religion, ancestry and lived experience of climate disaster have been appropriated for theatrics while the University’s finances contribute to suffering and destruction in my home and beyond.
A world on fire is why I am here at Yale, studying environmental policy and organizing with the Endowment Justice Coalition.
On Friday, Nov. 5, we held our first protest of the year in Beinecke Plaza. The site of the 1986 shantytown protests for divestment from South African apartheid, the Beinecke holds a historic significance in the decades-long movement for endowment justice.
The EJC is a movement of students, faculty, alumni and New Haven community members who oppose the financialization of higher education and believe the endowment is an inherently political force to be used for moral ends. Founded in 2018, we are currently centering our organizing around fossil fuel divestment.
The Friday rally was organized by the EJC to express shock and anger regarding Yale’s endowment returns in the midst of a pandemic and climate crisis. EJC organizers spoke of the fight against Yale’s wealth hoarding and specific profits from fossil fuels, outsourcing of library jobs and rebuke of the Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles’ spring report, which paved the way for Yale to continue its underwriting of climate catastrophe so long as it avoided investing in the “worst actors.”
Students from participating organizations — Students Unite Now, New Haven Climate Movement, the Yale College Council, Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, Yalies for Palestine and Disability Empowerment for Yale — also gave speeches about university inaccessibility, the abolition of the Yale Police Department, Palestinian suffering and the lack of mental health resources.
Witnessing hundreds of students from all class years, schools and walks of life, dressed in red, standing, chanting and listening in unity — demanding that the University live up to its mission — I saw Salovey’s words put to action.
I wholeheartedly agree with Salovey — we must improve ourselves before looking to make outward change. As he put it, “we must examine our values” and divest from fossil fuels, before launching a $7 billion “For Humanity” capital campaign with the aim of fundraising for climate change research.
It is not that we must improve ourselves “so that we can change the world.” To improve Yale is to change the world. Yale boasts one of the largest university endowments anywhere, larger than the GDP of over 90 countries. Yale’s stunningly lucrative investment model is a blueprint for many other educational institutions, investment funds and endowment managers.
Yet, Yale is desecrating its position as a global leader, remaining stubborn and stagnant while its peer institutions, including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Cambridge and Oxford have all committed to full fossil fuel divestment.
Yale’s investments in fossil fuels violate a fiduciary duty to both its students — especially those from climate distressed areas — and its wealth hoarding is a detriment to all New Haveners. 60 percent of real estate value in New Haven is owned by Yale and is therefore tax-exempt, leaving the city short of $157 million in annual revenue it otherwise could invest in critical social services in the midst of a global health emergency. The city’s projected deficit for 2021 is $66 million. This state of affairs is unjustifiable.
The EJC demands that the University disclose the extent of its exposure to the extraction, refinery and burning of fossil fuels; divest its holdings in the fossil fuel industry, and reinvest the wealth it has accumulated in much-needed social services for marginalized communities on campus and in the city of New Haven.
Salovey ended his speech by addressing us first years: “[You] are joining the Yale community at a historic moment. We are surrounded on all sides by fires small and large. And yet I can think of no better moment to be at Yale.”
Neither can I.
MOLLY WEINER is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.