Members of Fossil Free Penn have voiced concerns to the University over the past several years, but administrators have failed to take action. This past week, a group of Penn faculty members has joined the movement by signing a letter in support of student climate change action, particularly insisting that the University finally divest from fossil fuels. This is a laudable act by the signatories and is a model for how tenured faculty members must use their security to influence change at Penn.
On college campuses, students often have the power to effect change. Just a few years ago, student protests of the Oz email scandal led to the creation of the Task Force on a Safe and Responsible Campus Community, and in 1967, students held a seven-hour sit-in in Houston Hall to protest a Dow Jones recruiter for the company’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Students are an ideal force for change in many ways: Student activist groups are often articulate, energized, and passionate. But faculty can provide a sense of legitimacy and maturity to protests, which in conjunction with student activism, can be a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, while students are only on campus for four years, faculty that buy into the movement can be long-term mentors for generations of protesters.
Some faculty do not have the privilege to speak out, including those without United States citizenship and those in untenured or adjunct positions. But many professors have a high degree of stability and, even if they are not perfectly aligned with students on issues, they can be well positioned to take part in the movement. Penn professors, who are often on the front lines of research into how the world works, should be the first to appreciate that in the interconnected modern world, it's a fallacy to think that anyone can be isolated from issues just because they’re not affected directly.
Faculty and professors can help activist movements in many ways. For example, faculty can sign petitions or permit students to miss class to attend protests. Faculty can use their expertise to write letters and guest columns, like in 2017 when 33 Carey Law professors signed a letter denouncing fellow professor Amy Wax. Faculty can also be more active at protests themselves, participating in sit-ins or marches.
Students have to fight for the future while also considering how it might affect their grades, employment, and sometimes their families back home. The support of professors and faculty can be an important catalyst to help students inherit a brighter future. The fight for a fossil-free Penn is critical to the health of the Penn community and the planet. Any faculty at Penn that are still avoiding critical debates on our campus, like the fight for a graduate student union or payments in lieu of taxes should take a lesson from the faculty and students willing to protest for a better future, and step off the sidelines.
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