The University: A Locus for Divestment

In the previous issue, we investigated the cumulative effect of the divestment campaign in colleges and universities across the US in supporting the struggle of South African people against the Apartheid. We learned one example of a coherent divestment campaign that eventually led to significant pressure on the Apartheid economy, signaling the end of its economic reliability and, therefore, political support for the tyrannical regime. While the example is substantial enough to establish faith in the power of divestment, it still requires some explanation as to why it should be equally influential for other political objectives such as decarbonization. To rationalize the inquiry, we shall orient ourselves towards the ongoing divestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry, to examine what makes higher educational institutions potential ground for divestment campaigns in the first place, and whether it poses a moral obligation for the student body to vigorously respond to the call for divestment. 

The Stakes Are Real: A Collective Consciousness

Most of the groundbreaking research on climate science and green innovations has been done by students, faculty, scientists, and researchers at universities, leading to successive mass awareness about global warming. One of the earliest empirical works featuring the greenhouse effect and global warming was published in 1975 by a group of geologists and environmentalists from some of the nation’s most reputed higher educational institutions: Roger Revelle of UC San Diego, Wallace Broecker of Columbia, Charles Keeling of Caltech, Harmon Craig of UChicago, and Joseph Smagorinsky of Princeton. While privately funded research institutions such as Bell Laboratories have made some critical inventions in green technology such as solar cells, much of the foundational scientific research and consecutive developments took place in the laboratories of universities. Communities at higher educational institutions are dedicated to going beyond reaping copyright profits from these discoveries and are actually engaged in studying their global and local implications. Therefore, students, faculties and administrators at higher educational institutions share an informed and morally conscious outlook, because whatever is at stake is not just some gibberish done on a distant shore of the planet; instead, it is a shared communal achievement by all observing and contributing. This, combined with the social and moral consciousness, makes universities and colleges a potential breeding ground for socio-political campaigns such as divestment. 

Advantageous Environment:

Moreover, administrators and teachers in many universities are often amenable to campaigns for divestment; they are sympathetic with the goals campaigners seek to accomplish. Broadly speaking, they have a similar conception of a just society. They do not believe that the only central task of the university is to conserve, deepen and transmit knowledge to oncoming generations: they believe that one of the most important tasks of a higher educational institution is to promote just social arrangements. They think universities are more capable of bringing about such social arrangements than other institutions. This outlook makes the divestment campaigns more likely to succeed when conducted in a university than in another type of institution. Besides, campaigns at universities and the responses of administrators receive disproportionate attention from social media, press, radio, and television, compared to campaigns aimed at private firms, governments, and other institutions.

There is another closely related reason why the campaign for divestment focuses so intensively on universities: the responsiveness of students to issues like divestment and the passion with which some of them interest themselves in the matter are a source of strength for the campaign itself. The masses of students no longer become as excited as they did in the 1960s and early 1970s; only a minority become so possessed now. Nevertheless, they are sufficiently numerous to gain the attention of the press, television, and the authorities of the university. Furthermore, the techniques which developed in the period of agitation following the Vietnam war and the anti-apartheid movement have not disappeared from the tradition of student life. Students learned that they had an immense moral credit with administrators and teachers, that their demands would at least be given the benefit of the doubt, if not significant attention. They learned too that they could count on the support of their teachers. They learned that the obstruction of entry into university buildings, occupation of university property, processions, placards, and graffiti could act effectively on the uneasy consciences of their elders.

The prospects of a successful political enterprise, owed to us by our unique circumstances as students of one of the country’s most reputed liberal arts institutions, impose a moral obligation on our ability to act in favor of the demands of our times. In an earlier issue of the Quest, published on 10 December 2021, Albert Kerelis, in their opinion titled “Why Reed Will Never Divest from Anything,” analyzes the Board of Trustees’ position on divestment from fossil fuel. They argue that the Board of Trustees has historically shown no interest in taking a strong political stance by divesting from fossil fuel. Instead, as Kerelis points out, the Board’s goal has been “to protect Reed’s intense commitment to academic freedom by limiting the political role of the institution or the enlistment of the institution’s name in political causes.” At one point in Kerelis’ article, they mournfully recall the Divest Reed movement from 2019, evoking lively scenes of “In-person organizing and on-campus pestering, tabling” lost in time. Stories of Reedies occupying Eliot Hall for days during the anti-apartheid movement, preventing anyone from coming in or out, and keeping students from going to classes to send a political message to the Apartheid almost feel like a fairy tale from some distant time. As a member of this community, I think the legacy of responding to pleas of solidarity and acting in pursuit of social justice is vital to our Reedie identity. This is a legacy we have a collective responsibility to preserve. 

In the final issue to this series, our main ambition will be to further investigate the Board of Trustees’ current position on the issue of Divestment. We will also learn about the steps undertaken by some of the other reputed institutions in the country. On a brief tangent, we shall use this opportunity to examine the human cost of living a zero-carbon future and the possible consequences on the global south. This shall address some of the crucial supplements our campaign must have in order to envision a sustainable future for the world, not just wealthy nations. 


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