As a climate scientist, I find fossil fuel divestment to be critical low-hanging fruit, even if its effects are largely symbolic. But it never ceases to amaze me how we struggle to get it done.
At the University of Vermont (UVM) where I’ve taught since 1993, the divestment movement lasted a decade and got nowhere. Then — in less than a year — it happened. A growing student movement did the work. Emboldened by Mike Mann’s visit to campus and Greta Thunberg’s youth activism, students ramped up pressure on the University administration (which initially pushed back with standard lines about fiduciary responsibility). Some savvy students even noticed — buried deep on UVM’s web site — that the Green Fund, a small piece of our endowment, yielded better growth than the rest of UVM’s investment portfolio. Even that reasoned argument fell flat until public action by students and faculty allies threatened UVM’s well-manicured image as the “Environmental University.” In our image, and in the image of Williams College, lies the power for change.
When more than 100 students arrived with signs and speakers at the UVM fall Board of Trustees public comment period (scheduled at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 26, 2019), the dialogue began to change. At the winter meeting several months later, I, along with students, appealed to the board to divest and diversify (to me, these are tightly linked). Hundreds of students cheered under the watchful eyes of several armed UVM police and through rope barricades isolating the board. Still nothing changed. But TV cameras rolled.
When the same students planned to disrupt admitted students’ day visits a month later (we need to convince students to attend UVM since their tuition pays our salaries), decision makers noticed. I was Nordic skiing at dusk when my cell phone rang. It was the provost. She asked, Would I stop the student “activists” from protesting tomorrow? I said no. But I advised that she call and speak to them directly — hear their voices. The students had an audience and the log jam began to break. The board got a new chair. A committee was formed. By summer, the president celebrated “our” decision to divest because it demonstrated UVM’s true environmental mettle.
Our actions may have had a price. In December, UVM proposed to terminate the geology department — one of the big players in climate-change research on campus. Soon after, I was told by a dean that some in the administration had labeled me a “troublemaker.” A few weeks later, the emails and phone calls began. I’ve now heard from staff, faculty, a dean, and a large donor that some of UVM’s leadership team doesn’t believe climate change is real. So far, UVM has declined Freedom of Information Act requests from reporters to release relevant emails. Change does not come easily and without a cost.
What is clear to me now is that concerted student action, in the public square and supported by faculty (and alums!), is key to making change. Divestment means challenging established economic and management power structures; it’s not easy, and it carries risks. But it’s the right thing to do. In the words of the late John Lewis, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” The climate crisis mandates we make some noise and get in some good trouble. Every one of us.
Paul Bierman ’85 is a professor of geology at the University of Vermont. He lives in Burlington, Vt.