ACT: The Campus Impact

Campus movements, they say, often achieve their goals in the long term: Although they won’t immediately cripple a company or an industry, the argument goes, they can still be powerful agents of social change after a few years or a decade of activism.

By Jacoba Urist - The Atlantic

At Princeton University last week, undergraduates narrowly rejected a student referendum that would’ve urged the Board of Trustees to rid itself of any investments in multinational corporations that “sustain the illegal military occupation and blockade of the Palestinian Territories.” The count was relatively close: Only 102 votes separated the two sides. But with just 2,200 students participating, less than half of the undergraduate population effectively took a stand on whether Princeton should divest from such companies. 

Now, this Wednesday, Princeton’s graduate students are slated to begin voting on the same proposal; they have until May 8 to do so. Whether the turnout will be any stronger is unclear at this point, though some graduate-student activists insist they’ll make sure their voices are heard. In fact, the Graduate Student Government will be the entity announcing the results of that vote as a “formal show of consensus” and to demonstrate “sustained graduate student interest,” Kelly Roache, an undergraduate alumna who’s currently enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Public and International Affairs, said in an email. Roache co-founded the Princeton Divests Coalition, the student group advocating for the cause. 

Although they won’t immediately cripple a company or an industry, they can still be powerful agents of social change after a few years or a decade of activism.

Similar campaigns are taking place at college campuses across the U.S. As Princeton undergraduates voted on their divestment proposal last week, Tufts students and alumni staged a three-day sit-in at the university president’s office as part of an ongoing movement on Boston-area campuses to divest from fossil-fuel companies—as numerous American colleges have already pledged to do. According to Ben Weilerstein, a junior who volunteers as an organizer for Tufts Climate Action, the 55-hour protest ended last Friday, the same day the Princeton undergraduates’ vote was announced, when Tufts administrators promised students in writing that they could meet with the Board of Trustees chairman. 

From the Middle East to energy policy to gun control, divestment campaigns have in recent years become an increasingly popular form of campus activism, with student groups pushing schools to drop from their endowments investments that don’t align with their political beliefs. Endowments are a crucial financial resource for schools, often funded by donations from wealthy benefactors and managed by professional investors. While divestment organizers see their school’s investment portfolio as a catalyst for political reform and social change, it’s difficult to quantify the actual impact of these campaigns; financially speaking, they may be purely symbolic. But money aside, those messages can have clout.  

So from an economic view, as the Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt recently wrote in the Daily Princetonian, divestment is a pretty hollow gesture. Campus campaigns are also superficial, Reinhardt reasoned, because students don’t make any personal sacrifice when a university shifts its portfolio.

Still, divestment advocacy groups and their supporters argue that the strategy works on a symbolic level—signaling a message of disapproval, driving debate, and even helping shape a national agenda. Campus movements, they say, often achieve their goals in the long term: Although they won’t immediately cripple a company or an industry, the argument goes, they can still be powerful agents of social change after a few years or a decade of activism. Advocates of divestment believe it can place psychological pressure on an industry that has to recruit, hire, and retain employees, and that it can bring invaluable media attention—and public awareness—to an issue that otherwise might be ignored. “I’m under no delusion that if Yale or Harvard decided to divest from fossil fuels and guns it wouldn’t be on the front page of newspapers and everyone would be talking about it,” Macey said. “That’s the value in divestment campaigns. And I don’t think anyone believes they haven’t helped at all that way.”

Opponents of divestment say it doesn’t make economic sense; proponents say that doesn’t matter.

Students, too, have taken various approaches. Last year, a group of seven Harvard undergraduates took the university to court, arguing that the school’s investment in the fossil-fuel sector is “a breach of the school’s fiduciary and charitable duties as a public charitable and nonprofit corporation”—and that Harvard is mishandling funds by investing in “abnormally dangerous activities.” In March, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge dismissed their suit, holding that, as Harvard students, they had no specific, personal right to challenge the school’s management of assets. READ MORE

 

Image: The UC Davis community "gathered to voice their disapproval of the pepper spraying of non-violent protestors on campus" Image Credit: The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS)