This article is part of the Opinion section’s Black Futures at Princeton series. Click here to view the full project.
With climate change disproportionately affecting communities of color all over the world, Princeton must divest from fossil fuels now. Divestment is a calibrated, public, and immediate response to climate change. By divesting, Princeton would be standing up for the planet and standing against continued harm to and exploitation of marginalized communities. The clock is ticking on both.
Profits from slavery and the slave trade helped fund the establishment of many prestigious universities, including Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale. Not only that, but the first nine presidents of Princeton (1747-1854) owned slaves at some point in their lives. Enslaved persons lived at the President’s house through 1822 at least, and one professor owned a slave until 1840. Looking back on the early years, Princetonians might feel a sense of shame at how our alma mater condoned such injustice. Shame is warranted, but recognition of our unjust past is not enough. The Princeton & Slavery project was an important step in acknowledging this past, but we must keep working diligently to promote an increasingly inclusive and just future.
Today, Black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution than the average American, and 68 percent of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant. The resulting air pollution in communities of color is associated with higher rates of asthma, heart disease, premature death, and complications of COVID-19. Though much has changed since Princeton’s early years, the University remains complicit in the systemic racial injustices faced by communities of color so long as it continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry.
Princeton continues to invest in companies whose industry works in opposition to the Paris Agreement’s climate targets, undermining the achievement of its own Sustainability Action Plan, which aims for net-zero emissions by 2046. We are dismayed that Princeton’s own Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment recently renewed a multi-million dollar research partnership with ExxonMobil, a polluter long-known for funding climate disinformation campaigns and repeated environmental justice violations, particularly in majority-minority communities. Divestment offers a way to revoke the social license of companies that fail to prioritize human and environmental health over turning a profit.
The authors of this piece attended Princeton 55 years apart. During that period, Princeton has become more inclusive by orders of magnitude and has taken crucial actions to reduce inequities of gender, socioeconomic status, race, and nationality. Still, progress at Princeton is often slow-moving. For example, it was not until 1969 that the University admitted women as undergraduates, 132 years after Oberlin College became the first in this country to offer education to women alongside men. We do not have centuries to wait for Princeton to act on climate change.
Several examples illustrate that Princeton can act decisively. In 2006, Princeton acted relatively quickly to divest from companies contributing to genocide in Darfur. In addition, the University’s generous financial aid program has made a Princeton education accessible to students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2020, Princeton stood unequivocally in support of DACA, winning in the U.S. Supreme Court. President Christopher L. Eisgruber said at the time, “Princeton University filed this suit because our success as a world-class teaching and research university depends on our ability to attract and support talented students from all backgrounds.”
Racism and climate change, vital concerns for college applicants and students, are two of the greatest challenges of our time. Divestment addresses both. If Princeton acts now, beginning to divest and dissociate from the fossil fuel industry, it will again show the courage and leadership worthy of a “world-class teaching and research university.” Columbia, Brown, and Cornell have already announced plans to divest from fossil fuels. So have Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of California system. Will the Princeton we love and cherish join them, standing on the right side of global history?
For Princeton to be truly in the service of humanity, it must stop profiting from injustices inflicted on communities of color by investing instead in a sustainable and equitable future for all.
John Huyler ’67 is a retired environmental mediator living in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Hannah Reynolds is a junior in the Anthropology Department from Upstate NY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.