On Thursday, Sept. 22 just after 3:00 p.m., I was flipping through my phone while waiting for the exams to be passed out in my Biology class. After seeing a text to the Fossil Free Penn coordinator Groupme that we had received an email from the trustees, I put my phone in my backpack. I wondered what was happening as I heard my phone vibrate over and over again while I took my exam. After class, I went home and checked my email to find out that the trustees had rejected divestment.
The reasons why the trustees’ decision that day is morally objectionable are many and one column cannot encapsulate them all. Today I will explain what took place in the process that led up to this decision. It is one riddled with bias and opacity.
In their decision, the trustees’ concurred with the results of the ad-hoc committee on fossil fuel investments that was formed this past March to research Fossil Free Penn’s 40+ page proposal and advise the trustees on a decision. In our proposal we presented arguments and research regarding the blockage of climate legislation by fossil fuel companies, the immense harm endured by the communities where the fuels are extracted and refined and the impacts of climate change. We cited the numerous studies which have demonstrated that divesting the endowment from the fossil fuel industry would not negatively impact their investment returns. We presented the support we have gained among the Penn community, including a landslide student referendum vote, faculty letter and alumni petition. The response to all of these arguments and research by the ad-hoc committee with which the trustees concurred was simply that fossil fuel companies did not constitute their “interpretation of moral evil as an activity on par with apartheid or genocide.”
Their response was so simple; almost as if they had not even read the document. Considering the conduct of the committee, it is perhaps unsurprising that they would come to such a conclusion. The chair of the committee, alumnus David Roberts, is the current chief operating officer of an investment bank (Angelo, Gordon & Co) that recommends an energy lending strategy that focuses on oil and gas. Dillon Weber, who had testified to the University Council’s Open Forum against divestment served as an undergraduate representative on the committee. Professor Mark Alan Hughes, who has stated he believes that almost all oil and gas in the United States can be extracted without adverse climate effects, served on the committee. Yet no advocate for divestment or person who had previously helped with the campaign was allowed to serve as we were considered to be biased.
Further, the committee simply sent its recommendation to the trustees privately when it had reached a consensus, apparently in June. The process had been presented to us as a number of steps leading to a trustee decision, and we had been involved in all the previous steps. Yet when it came to the final decision, we were shut out. We were not notified that the recommendation had been given to the trustees and had no idea that they were meeting that day. This disrespect took place after our two year campaign had garnered the support of 87.8 percent of voting students in a referendum, 108 faculty who signed a letter supporting our proposal and hundreds of alumni who signed a petition and testimony at multiple university council meetings. If even that type of support does not deserve a fair hearing by the administration, I cannot imagine what does.
After an initial shock that this had happened, a few of us were kicking ourselves for not thinking about how this could have happened. Yet that reaction was misplaced. It is important to know the administration’s game, however, we that cannot let that knowledge allow us to lose sight of their shameful cynicism. We should not have to beg for what we know is right and popular. In the face of the trustees’ statement we have not seen our campus support drop — in fact some of us have felt it grow. Taking on the fossil fuel industry was never going to be easy. Despite the Penn administration’s decision, we remain hopeful and committed to the road ahead.