President Amy Gutmann and Board of Trustees Chairman David Cohen agreed to meet with student protesters following a seven-hour sit-in outside Gutmann’s office, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
Over two dozen Penn students, mostly members of the group Fossil Free Penn, staged a sit-in in College Hall to protest the University’s decision not to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
The students arrived at 8:50 a.m. to demand an on-the-record meeting with Gutmann and transparency about the process that led the Board of Trustees to reject divestment in September.
The sit-in came to a conclusion at around 4:15pm after the University met part of their demands for a meeting, which will be held in early December, according to sources.
Gutmann’s office was not immediately available to confirm they had agreed to the meeting.
On Sept. 22, after a drawn-out process involving several different steps, the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Divestment made a unanimous recommendation not to divest, issuing strategies the University would pursue instead.
Student leaders at the sit-in demanded an open dialogue with the University.
“Over time we have tried having dialogue with the administration and we felt we had to take action today in order to make sure our position was clear,” said Peter Thacher, College senior and faculty and alumni coordinator of Fossil Free Penn.
Thacher said the protesters initially tried going inside Gutmann’s office but were denied access. Instead, they sat in a circle outside her office, holding up posters and voicing their thoughts on environmental issues.
Gutmann was nowhere to be seen throughout the sit-in.
Surprised University administrators met with student protestors to make sure the demonstration did not block the exit from Gutmann’s office. The administrators also “wanted to explain to us that the Trustees are not climate change deniers,” Thacher said.
Several officials of Penn’s Division of Public Safety stood by the protestors to ensure orderly conduct. A representative from DPS declined to comment.
“We very much appreciate the issues that the students raise, because they are important ones," Vice President for Communications Steve MacCarthy wrote in a statement. "We are in full agreement with them on the long term goal of reducing carbon emissions; we merely disagree on the best strategies for achieving that. The Board feels they can have more influence on the issue through the steps they outlined in September.”
The protesters started checking in via Facebook in an attempt to garner support, similar to activists’ efforts in the North Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Despite the shadow of a contentious presidential election just days earlier, which has sent ripples of protest and shock through Penn's campus, protestors said they chose the date of the sit-in, November 10, to honor the 21st anniversary of the execution of nine activists in Nigeria.
In early 2015, 87.8 percent of undergraduates voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment in a campus-wide referendum. In November 2015, Fossil Free Penn submitted a proposal to the University Council Steering Committee to have Penn divest from fossil fuels. The group later published a letter on April 8, urging divestment. Over 100 faculty members from 10 of Penn’s 12 schools signed the letter.
“We felt very left out of the process,” said Rita Wegner, College junior and campaign coordinator of the student group. Wegner said their 50-page proposal went mostly unacknowledged by the University.
The group also demanded “the release of the revised shareholder engagement plan with fossil fuel companies that the Trustees' stated they would create in place of divesting,” according to a press release.
"We don't have the respect we think we deserve,” said Gavi Reiter, College senior and student outreach coordinator of the group. “We are ready for this meeting [with Gutmann]. Now, it’s on her to answer the call.”
Thursday's College Hall sit-in follows a similar demonstration at Harvard last spring, in which protestors from the group Divest Harvard held a six-day blockade of Harvard University building Massachusetts Hall after submitting a petition imploring the university to divest from fossil fuel.
At 5 p.m., the United Minorities Council held a rally outside College Hall in solidarity with the protesters.
Kelly Heinzerling contributed reporting.