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Princeton, Yale, Penn student divestment advocates respond to formal divestment of majority of the Ivy League

<h6><strong>Justin Cai / The Daily Princetonian</strong></h6>
Justin Cai / The Daily Princetonian

Following the formal announcement from Harvard and Dartmouth, the majority of Ivy League institutions have now divested from the fossil fuel industry.

Among those who have not divested are Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania.

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While student leaders at these remaining universities maintain that significant challenges stand in the way of formal divestment, they remain optimistic about what the decision signifies.

According to The Dartmouth, the investment office announced its formal divestment from fossil fuels on Oct. 8. This decision followed a 2017 announcement that the college would be making no new investments and a 2021 decision that the direct public portfolio would no longer hold investments in fossil fuel companies. The office plans to allow its remaining public holdings in the sector to expire.

Harvard formally divested from fossil fuels on Sept. 10. Similar to Dartmouth, Harvard will allow its remaining investments in the industry to expire. This decision followed prolonged efforts by on-campus student advocacy groups, including filing of legal complaints with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and gaining seats on the school’s governing board. 

Prior to this fall, Columbia announced on Jan. 26 that it would not invest in any publicly traded oil and gas companies. Additionally, as of March 2020, Brown is selling its direct investment and managed funds. Finally, Cornell announced a moratorium on new investments in fossil fuels in May of 2020. 

Landscape of Student Advocacy at Princeton, Penn, and Yale 

At the Ivy League schools have not committed to formal divestment, student organizers cite that significant progress has been made in the arena of climate action and sustainability. 

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In May of 2021, Princeton announced its plans to divest from coal and tar sands. The University of Pennsylvania made a similar announcement to stop investments in these industries in February 2020.

On June 24, Yale’s investment office set new carbon reduction targets and pledged to achieve zero actual carbon emissions — those achieved without the purchase of offsets — by 2050.

Notably, Princeton is the only school that has a dissociation requirement, which says that the University must cut all ties to fossil fuel companies to divest. 

Though the institutions have made steps toward formal divestment, student leaders of divestment advocacy organizations remain committed that these steps are not sufficient. 

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At the University of Pennsylvania, climate change advocacy is centered around the Student Sustainability Association at Penn (SSAP). Following climate progress and the decision to partially divest from fossil fuels, the SSAP launched a new campaign. 

“The goal is to present a more pragmatic, but still very ambitious case for fossil fuel divestment,'' said Vyshnavi Kosigishroff, SSAP’s co-chair. 

At Yale, student advocacy is focused around the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition (EJC) which was formed in 2018 via a merger of two other campus organizations: Despierta Boricua, the Puerto Rican Student Organization, and Fossil Free Yale. 

According to one of its members, Josephine Steuer Ingall, the EJC is committed to advocacy through direct action, staging sit-ins at the investment’s office, demonstrations, and occupying locations on campus. 

The primary engine on the University’s campus is Divest Princeton. Founded in October 2019, the organization defines itself as “a coalition of students, faculty, and alumni calling on Princeton University to fully and urgently divest our endowment from fossil fuel companies and reinvest responsibly.” 

Hannah Reynolds ’22, co-chair of Divest Princeton, noted that the movement has now reached a historic point: the organization’s demands have never made it past the resource committee in all five iterations of Divest Princeton until now, where the board has made recommendations. 

Reynolds is an Opinion Columnist at the ‘Prince.’

All leaders also noted a renewed sense of hope and a validation of their work following the announcements from Harvard and Dartmouth this fall. 

Kosigishroff described the mood at Penn as “excited, optimistic, and very ambitious.” 

Ingall and Reynolds also predicted that Harvard’s decision to divest in particular would likely apply additional pressure on their respective investment offices to divest formally from fossil fuels, given the historical trends of each university following Harvard on social issues. 

Moreover, Reynolds remarked on the broader implications if, in her view, Princeton continues to lag behind its peer institutions. 

“Divestment is becoming something that is in the public consciousness outside of Princeton,” she said. “A lot of brilliant young people who are getting into places like Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton are going to choose places that care about climate and take their futures seriously over a school that's partnered with egregious polluters.”

Obstacles to Divestment 

Despite these sentiments, there remain significant cultural, financial, and political obstacles to formal divestment in the Ivy League. Student representatives from each institution cited frustrations with the bureaucracy of their respective university investment offices. 

At Princeton especially, Reynolds claimed additional challenges stemming from institutional structures. For example, she noted, a third of the University’s Board of Trustees is elected, making it difficult to put pro-divestment voices on the board. 

At Penn, SSAP member Camila Irabien diluted the issue down to the essential tension between the wants of the students and the university’s donors. Kosigishroff observed an additional challenge at Penn, which is that its heightened pre-professional culture can also impede the divestment movement.  

“When the entire university culture is about pre-professionalism and traditional pre-professional success, that is directly oppositional to climate progress. That creates a tension that is really hard to break,” Kosigishroff said.

While she noted that there has been somewhat of a renaissance in climate action taken, Kosigishroff still sees shortcomings in the actions that Penn is willing to take. 

“Penn for the first time ever is using the terms we use. They’re talking about their investments, they’re talking about finance in the fossil fuel industry which is a win, but if the response to that is we’ll have more water fountains so people buy fewer plastic bottles that means they’re not really listening,“ Kosigishroff said. 

Sources of Pressure 

Reynolds also cited that a reason for the success of the University’s peer institutions is that many of them have received faculty support, which she says has been more challenging to solicit at Princeton. 

However, at each institution, student pressure is growing. Both Irabien and Kosigishroff noted the increase in environmental consciousness on Penn’s campus. 

“The students now are looking for a way to get involved in climate action that is not performative,” said Kosigishroff.

Increased student buy-in can also be attributed to concerted efforts made by the EJC and SSAP to tackle the intersectionality of climate issues. 

At the EJC, addressing the subject of Puerto Rican Debt, which Yale indirectly invests in, is an issue core to the organization’s mission. 

“Talking about the fact that combatting the climate crisis is a project of racial justice and is a project of decolonization is very important to us,” Ingall said. 

At Penn, the SSAP hosted an open forum for student leaders, including Irabien, to present different reasons as to why the university should divest. 

The forum which hosted members from various coalitions and groups across campus showed the increased climate consciousness of the Penn student body. 

“These are people who are really plugged into their communities and student advocacy who understand that climate is a part of their work. I think the movement is growing and people are getting excited,” said Kosigishroff. 

In addition to faculty and student pressure, another significant source of pressure comes from the outside community. 

In the past week, both The Nation and The New York Times have mentioned the lack of formal divestment at Princeton. 

While Reynolds says the University receives little political pressure from the township to divest, many community members and local high school students come to Divest Princeton rallies and show support for the cause. 

On the other hand, according to student organizers, Penn and Yale both receive political pressure from the cities they are located in given their vast physical presence as well as the socioeconomic makeup of the surrounding areas of West Philadelphia and New Haven. 

“We’re frustrated, but hopeful. We’re motivated and energized by the successes at other institutions and the potential for Princeton to be able to follow in their footsteps,” said Reynolds. 

Or, to put it in Ingall’s words: “We’re not done, and we're not going to shut up.” 

Kalena Blake is an assistant news editor. She can be reached at kalenab@princeton.edu.

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