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Fossil Free Penn submitted a recommendation to the University Council in November 2015 to have the University divest from fossil fuel companies. 

Credit: Carson Kahoe

On April 8, Fossil Free Penn released a letter in support of divestment from fossil fuels that was signed by over 100 faculty members across 10 out of the 12 schools at Penn.

An Ad Hoc Committee on Divestment was formed in March to consider the divestment proposal submitted by Fossil Free Penn in October 2015 following the successful student referendum in February 2015. The committee is expected to convene for up to 12 months and will then submit a recommendation to the Board of Trustees who will ultimately make the decision of whether or not Penn divests its holding in the fossil fuel industry.

While the committee convenes, Fossil Free Penn has been collecting faculty signatures in support of divestment all semester. The 102 signatures come from faculty in all of Penn’s schools except the Law School and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“The Ad Hoc Committee goes base by base: do we have student support? Check. Do we have alumni support? Check. Reaching 100 signatures was a baseline to show that yes, we do have faculty support,” College freshman and Fossil Free Penn member Zach Rissman said. “The thing about something as big as divestment is that if you don’t have all your bases covered then you have no chance of succeeding.”

Fossil Free Penn members reached out to faculty via email and in-person meetings and once there was an initial core group of support, many faculty members helped connect the group with other supportive faculty, creating solidarity in scholarly voices.

“Faculty reaching out to faculty really makes a difference because it shows that your colleagues are signing this and supporting this movement,” College senior and Fossil Free Penn member Michelle Lopez said.

While many faculty members have been enthusiastic and happy to support the cause, some have been hesitant or opposed.

“We’ve gotten a wide range of responses from ‘yes I’d love to sign, let me know what else I can do to help’ to ‘I don’t believe in this cause, stop wasting your time,’” Rissman said. “But a lot of the time I think professors may support us quietly but don’t want that public name out there.”

Lopez added, “We tried targeting tenured professors since they are allowed to put their names on things they feel strongly about.”

Simon Richter, professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, said he believes that a general cynicism causes some faculty to be hesitant about supporting divestment.

“There was an extremely well-organized effort a few years ago to get faculty members to sign the letter urging the University to divest from tobacco and yet [the movement] did not go anywhere,” Richter said.

Richter teaches the Penn-in-Berlin and Rotterdam summer program which focuses on sustainability, environmentalism and policy-making.

“Being in Germany, seeing what the energy transition is like over there, is inspiring and it inspires you to see that same sort of thing in the U.S., to see your institution involved in this,” he said.

Richter explained his reasons for signing the letter, saying that failing to divest from fossil fuels represents an inherent contradiction on the University’s part.

“The knowledge we produce with regard to climate change and global warming is incontrovertible and is the basis for all kinds of action,” he said. “The University supports this knowledge production and I think it should be consistent in also realizing that a proper way to address climate change is to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in green technologies.”

Lopez explained that divesting helps stigmatize fossil fuel industries and contributes to breaking the political link that these industries currently enjoy.

After Fossil Free Penn published the faculty letter with 100 signatures, the representatives said they hope to continue to build momentum for divestment.

“We want to draw on the resources and the connections of the faculty and continue to make our campaign grow,” College senior and Fossil Free Penn member Jorge Mancilla Uribe said.

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