At the University Board of Trustees Executive Committee meeting on Sept. 28, Penn administrators seated around the boardroom table were accompanied by seven student protesters from Fossil Free Penn.
For the duration of the 20-minute meeting, FFP members stood silently along the wall across from Penn President Amy Gutmann, armed with computer printouts that read slogans such as “Divest Now” and “Stop Funding Climate Change." Their presence was not acknowledged by any of the administrators, and the meeting continued as planned.
Once the meeting adjourned, some FFP members tried handing their 8.5-by-11-inch printer-paper flyers to those leaving the room, but were mostly not acknowledged. Provost Wendell Pritchett smiled and accepted the offering.
According to FFP Campaign Co-Coordinator and College junior Zach Rissman, the only person who spoke to them was Chairman of the Board of Trustees David Cohen, who thanked them for coming as he exited the room.
“It really was creating a situation where they could no longer ignore our presence, and I think that was definitely achieved,” Rissman said. “There can be no option of ignoring us now. Let’s actually have a real discussion.”
Earlier this week, FFP held an event where over 15 members emailed Trustees with the same text, which reaffirmed FFP's commitment to the cause. It also stated FFP's financial assessment that estimated that, had Penn divested a year ago, the University would have saved $12.4 million. Rissman said the email could also have been sent out by up to 50 additional FFP members not present at the event.
Cohen sent emails to members of FFP stating that he was aware of FFP's efforts to contact board members, but that "the Trustees have no plans to revisit the unanimous recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Divestment, as well as the final decision of the Executive Committee of the Trustees."
"The Trustees have given this matter careful consideration, including considering explicitly whether we wanted to reconsider our decision at the request of Fossil [Free] Penn. We remain unanimous in our judgment that our original decision was correct and that we do not want to reconsider it," Cohen wrote in the email.
This is not the first time a Trustees meeting has been protested by students. In 2015, Penn students interrupted a meeting to call out Cohen, who serves as the executive vice president of Comcast Corp., for believing the company lobbied against Title II, a federal policy key to net neutrality. (Comcast has actually publicly supported Title II.) Cohen was not in attendance at the 2015 meeting, but the filmed event was reported on by The Daily Pennsylvanian and other the media outlets.
FFP has had a rocky history with the administration in the past. Last semester, the group staged protests in November and in March, which ultimately ended in a walkout, with over 130 students participating at some point in the multi-day sit-in.
Many members of Penn’s campus agree with the group’s message. A 2015 campus-wide referendum revealed 87.8 percent of undergraduates agreed Penn should divest and over 100 faculty members signed FFP's divestment proposal that same year.
The group said despite the administrators' lack of acknowledgement, they considered the protest on Sept. 28 a success.
“Our presence disturbed the meeting in the sense that we drew people’s attentions towards us,” College sophomore Jacob Hershman said. “I definitely caught people glancing at our signs.”
A DP reporter took a photo of the protest in action. A University representative told the reporter to delete the photo immediately, but since Board of Trustees meetings are open to the public, the photo has been published here.
The Office of the University Secretary declined to give an official comment on the protest.
At the end of the meeting, the two sides left the board room in what Rissman called an “awkward situation.” Together, the administrators and students spent a silent elevator ride down the 15 floors to the lobby.
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