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The February referendum formally established that the student body is largely in favor of divestment from fossil fuels.

Credit: Courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

Divestment movements are sweeping through higher education — though results at Penn have yet to be seen.

In February, a referendum in which Penn undergraduates voted on whether they wanted the University to divest from fossil fuels passed overwhelmingly. Thirty-three percent of undergraduate students voted in the referendum, with 87.8 percent favoring divestment. But the referendum has not yet led to any signs of change on Penn’s campus.

Only Penn’s Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees has the final say in the University’s investment decisions — any other party can only make recommendations. While the February referendum formally established that the student body is largely in favor of divestment from fossil fuels, it has no tangible direct impact — the Undergraduate Assembly is only one step in the long path to divestment.

“[The referendum is] an indication to the UA that this is the definitive opinion on this issue,” Wharton junior and Nominations and Elections Committee chair Devin Grossman said. “The UA’s role is to act in whatever way possible to advocate the results of the referendum.”

UA President Jane Meyer said that at this point there is no set plan on how exactly the UA will move forward with the fossil fuel divestment movement. One possible course of action is that the UA will present to the University Council, a group consisting of student leaders and administrators, who would then evaluate the proposal and consider passing it onto a higher committee.

Because there is no precedent for such a referendum at Penn, the path moving forward is ambiguous. In 2014, the unsuccessful movement at Penn to divest from the tobacco industry received widespread support from both faculty and students — though the cause did not use a referendum.

On March 30, students launched another divestment movement called Penn Divest from Displacement, which proposes that the University divest from corporations that profit through practices that displace people. This proposal has incited controversy because of its objective of divestment from companies profiting from Palestinian occupation.

Engineering senior Lauren Ballester, a leader of Penn Divest for Displacement, said that it is a long-term movement, which is also designed to spark dialogue and awareness throughout campus. The groups plans to launch its own referendum in the fall, Ballester said.

While Penn students have decided to try a referendum this time around, Harvard undergraduates have taken a different approach — last week, the group Divest Harvard launched its “Heat Week” of protests, blocking off important administrative buildings to try to gain administrators’ attention.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, an international campaign which shares similar goals to Penn Divest from Displacement, has contributed to movements on college campus across the country. This week, students from Princeton University will vote to support divestment from corporations that maintain infrastructure in the West Bank.

Engineering junior Sasha Klebnikov believes that although these referendums probably will not lead to divestment anytime soon, the fossil fuel referendum was an important display of student consensus and a highly effective method of mobilizing students to support environmental issues.

“Its going to send a very, very clear message to President Gutmann and the Trustees, et cetera that the Penn student body really cares about the environment and really is quite worried about the negative effects of big oil. That is a very clear message that has not been lost on anyone,” Klebnikov said.

He added, “It’s going to accomplish a lot, but it’s not going to accomplish what it said it was going to.”

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