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Credit: Kylie Cooper

On Friday, Nov. 8, a large group of students from Fossil Free Penn disrupted the University’s Board of Trustees meeting. For half an hour, until the meeting was adjourned, they sang and chanted their sole demand: that Penn President Amy Gutmann, Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen, and Chief Investment Officer Peter Ammon agree to a town hall meeting with students about fossil fuel divestment.

A large number of faculty have signed the following open letter:

The Penn students involved in Fossil Free Penn have called on the University to recognize its ethical responsibilities and to more fully embrace a leadership role in the fight against climate change. Indeed, they have had to go to great lengths to get the University’s attention. While not all of us agree on every tactic the students may employ, we as faculty urge our colleagues and University administrators to hear them out, engage them constructively, and take much bolder action. At the very least, the University leadership should agree to the town hall that the students are calling for and commit to a candid and open-minded deliberative dialogue on this uniquely pressing issue. Further, we believe that Penn should join the list of universities that have divested from fossil fuels, signaling an institutional commitment to the goals set forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018

The thousands of scientists who contributed to the IPCC report agree on the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: 45% by 2030, to reach net-zero by 2050. This will not be achieved without major adjustments in the ways energy is produced and consumed.

Penn can lead the Ivy League in making the changes that will be needed across society to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. Columbia University and Stanford University have already taken the step to divest from coal companies. In September 2019, the entire University of California system announced its divestment from fossil fuel companies.

The trustees have a historic opportunity to create a serious divestment plan. In 2016, Cohen, who chairs the Board, outlined the trustees’ reasons for not using the endowment to make a public policy statement on the need for climate action. It is time to rethink this position. With hundreds of millions of lives at stake across the globe in the coming decades, the unabated exploitation of fossil fuel resources meets the standard identified by Cohen: a “moral evil.” In addition, Cohen stipulates that “a specific company or companies identified for divestment must have a clear and undeniable nexus to the moral evil,” but this is possible: Two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions, for example, can be traced to only 90 firms active in fossil fuel and cement production, including 50 investor-owned firms.

In addition, the moral imperative to consider the climate crisis should lead the Board of Trustees to consider other proactive investment strategies, including “long green” objectives. The University of California system, for example, was the first major educational institution to invest in a consortium for sustainable energy solutions. Penn should consider becoming the first Ivy to join this club.

We recognize that the University leadership has many obligations and responsibilities, and that these are not easily reconciled. But humanity has not faced a threat like climate change before. We owe it to our students to do all we can to protect the world they are inheriting.

Julia Alekseyeva, English

Nikhil Anand, Anthropology

Daniel A. Barber, Architecture

Sandra Barnes, Anthropology, Emeritus

Herman Beavers,English,Africana Studies

Ericka Beckman, Romance Languages

Anne Berg, History

S. Pearl Brilmyer, English

Kathleen Brown, History 

Max Cavitch, English

Robin Clark, Linguistics

Daniel Aldana Cohen, Sociology

Thomas L. Daniels, City and Regional Planning

Karen Detlefsen, Philosophy

Robert J. DeRubeis, Psychology

Jane Dmochowski, Earth and Environmental Science

Ivan Dmochowski, Chemistry 

Jamal J. Elias, Religious Studies

David L. Eng, English

James English, English 

Jed Esty, English

Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, History

Nancy Farriss, History, Emerita

Marc Flandreau, History

Ian Fleishman, Germanic Languages and Literatures

Steven Feierman, History and Sociology of Science, Emeritus

Kristen R. Ghodsee, Russian and East European Studies

Andrea Goulet, Romance Languages

Marie Gottschalk, Political Science

Erick Guerra, City and Regional Planning

Michael G. Hanchard, Africana Studies

Kathryn Hellerstein, Germanic Languages and Literatures 

Sophie Hochhäusl, Architecture

Andrew E. Huemmler, Engineering & Applied Science

Sarah Jackson, Annenberg

Daniel H. Janzen, Biology

Michael Jones-Correa, Political Science

David Kazanjian, English and Comparative Literature

Suvir Kaul, English

D. Brian Kim, Russian and East European Studies

Steven O. Kimbrough, Operations, Information and Decisions

Konrad Kording, Bioengineering and Neuroscience

Marisa Kozlowski, Chemistry

Zachary Lesser, English

Michael Z. Levy, Epidemiology

Walter Licht, History

Susan Lindee, History and Sociology of Science 

Jessa Lingel, Annenberg

Ania Loomba, English

Kenneth R Lum, Fine Arts

Thomas E. Mallouk, Chemistry

Randall Mason, Historic Preservation

E. Ann Matter, Religious Studies, Emerita

Karen M’Closkey, Landscape Architecture

Projit Bihari Mukharji, History & Sociology of Science

Carol Muller, Music

Sheila Murnaghan, Classical Studies

Benjamin Nathans, History

Anne Norton, Political Science

Eric W. Orts, The Wharton School

Josephine Park, English

Kathy Peiss, History

Kevin M. F. Platt, Russian and East European Studies

Benjamin C. Pierce, Computer and Information Science

Karen Redrobe, History of Art, Wolf Humanities Center

Daniel K. Richter, History

Simon Richter, Germanic Languages and Literature

Megan Robb, Religious Studies

Sophia Rosenfeld, History

Megan Ryerson, City & Regional Planning/Electrical & Systems Engineering

Thomas Max Safley, History

Paul K. Saint-Amour, English

Melissa Sanchez, English

Jeffery G. Saven, Chemistry

Donovan Schaefer, Religious Studies

Eric J. Schelter, Chemistry

Kim A. Sharp, Biochemistry and Biophysics

Daniel J. Singer, Philosophy

Eric A. Stach, Materials Science and Engineering

Emily Steinlight, English

Jim Sykes, Music

Kok-Chor Tan, Philosophy

Deborah Thomas, Anthropology

Jolyon Thomas, Religious Studies

Neil C. Tomson, Chemistry

Heidi Voskuhl, History and Sociology of Science

David Wallace, English & Comparative Literature

Anna Weesner, Music

Scott Weinstein, Philosophy

Michael Weisberg, Philosophy

Steven Weitzman, Religious Studies

Simone White, English

Bethany Wiggin, Germanics, Environmental Humanities

Emily Wilson, Classical Studies, Comparative Literature

Daniel Wodak, Philosophy

Dagmawi Woubshet, English

Aaron Wunsch, Historic Preservation

Chi-ming Yang, English

Guobin Yang, Annenberg/Sociology