GROUP THINK is The Daily Pennsylvanian’s roundtable section, in which we throw a question at the columnists and see what answers stick. Read your favorite columnist, or read them all.
This week’s question: Fossil Free Penn organized a demonstration this week titled Divestfest that is a departure from its usual tactics in urging the administration to divest from fossil fuels. In general, how can student activist groups lobby Penn’s administration effectively in order to promote change? What strategies work best for making administrators actually listen?
Lucy Hu | Fresh Take
In an ideal world, the Penn administration would actively seek out student opinions and work to create a democratic governance.
For issues of mental health and general welfare of students, the onus should not fall on the students to make the administration care. The Campus Conversation was delayed and inadequate, and no fault lay with student activists.
But there are issues for which the administration occasionally has legitimate reasons for straying from student opinion.
For example, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania have full jurisdiction on the issue of divestment from the University endowment based on social responsibility. They follow a stringent process, informed by formal guidelines, in making decisions on divestment. Community members must make a “proposal to the University Council Steering Committee for consideration.”
Working with rigid logistics, Penn activists must pursue rational operations over impassioned, dramatic action in order to pragmatically effect change. Most tailored to an unmalleable administration is a targeted approach that abides by rules and regulations. Administrators want open dialogue and discourse, not inflammatory behavior, as Fossil Free Penn has recognized.
So, while FFP’s sit-ins and protests have garnered attention among the student body, changing tactics might just persuade who they really need — the administration.
Amy Chan | Chances Are
I’m going to be cynical and say that in general, there’s not much student activist groups can do to make Penn’s administration listen. The administration does whatever it deems necessary and — for the most part — appeals to its pockets and its PR goals. The only time they enact real change is when some great tragedy strikes or in the last hour of most, most dire need.
But because that’s kind of a non-answer, and because that doesn’t really help anyone, I’ll say that I believe the most effective call for real change is much in line with what Fossil Free Penn is doing now. Inflammatory protests won’t do much to administrators besides annoy them, and they usually go on ignoring them anyway. It’s best to work within the system to change it. It’s a numbers game, and the more students who join a certain activist group — not just say they support it — and work closely with administrators, draw up plausible petitions and plans, demonstrate how the pros of their specific lobby outweigh the cons, the more impossible it becomes for the administration to reject their idea. In some ways, it’s kind of like marketing. You take an abstract idea and make it as concrete and persuasive as possible, so that there’s no way the buyer (or administrator) can turn it down. As the old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Spencer Swanson | Spencer’s Space
I wholeheartedly agree with the new tactics that involve a more inclusive strategy to engage a broader base within the Penn community. In addition, it may be extremely valuable for Fossil Free Penn to engage with the Penn alumni community. Perhaps some Penn Nursing alumni are particularly well-versed in the health aspects of fossil fuel use or Wharton alumni have insights into promising, high-yielding alternative fuel investments. It seems that organizing elaborate and often time consuming FFP activities on campus have failed to produce effective change, so an approach that aims to educate a larger number of students, faculty, alumni, and trustees will yield better results. Moreover, if the FFP leaders are willing and able to engage in a dialogue with the Penn administration an even more effective action plan could be explored. With 90 percent of the Penn student body urging Penn to divest from fossil fuel related investments, the policy will is clearly here. It’s just a matter of translating this sentiment into an effective message to bring to the administration, which in turn must demonstrate that it is prepared to listen to the concerns of the FFP.
James Lee | The Conversation
I commend Fossil Free Penn for taking a more inclusive approach to their activism. As mentioned in the article, only a few people showed up consistently to their meetings in the past, and it seems like they’re now focused more on raising awareness and promoting education on the issue rather than just inflammatory actions committed by those select few. This transition is necessary to be effective in the long run. FFP is a group that most students have probably heard of and know at this point, but the reasoning behind their position might be more unfamiliar for most.
I also believe that the University will be more inclined to have meaningful discussions with the group, as they can no longer point to illegal behavior as grounds for ignoring it. I personally do not believe that divestment is a moral imperative at this point in history, but activism for an issue that people are passionate about ought to be applauded regardless, especially as college students.
Sara Merican | Merican in America
I think it is great that Fossil Free Penn has moved towards education this semester. Also, some activist groups’ agendas may appear “niche” to the general student body, and education is crucial to bridging that. How do you share something related to “fossil fuels” to students who perhaps do not “care” as much about climate change as you do? Education is a great way for the group to also rethink their approaches, gather student feedback, and through these efforts, strengthen their case in front of the Penn administration.
Cameron Dichter | Real Talk
Every student group that’s interested in enacting change at Penn should be willing to adapt its tactics when a more fruitful method presents itself. If Fossil Free Penn believes that it is better served by focusing on education and recruitment at this time, then I think it’s smart to change its focus.
However, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that FFP made this decision partially because the administration claimed it wouldn’t work with FFP if it kept “breaking the rules.” We should all recognize the danger apparent in letting the administration dictate what methods are and are not acceptable. As we learned from the citations issued to FFP after their last sit-in, the administration is not above arbitrarily changing the scope of acceptable conduct when it feels threatened by student activism.