Penn has taken a stand against divesting its $20 billion endowment from fossil fuels and reinvesting in Philadelphia schools and housing. At this year’s Homecoming football game, Penn’s private police force — the largest in the state — detained 19 students and activists from Fossil Free Penn who were demanding that the University divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in the Philadelphia community. As a Ph.D. candidate who studies environmental justice, I am ashamed to be a student at this University.
Many of us are aware that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2022 report stated that we will reach the 1.5 degree Celsius tipping point within two decades and called for fast and dramatic cuts to carbon emissions in order to curb climate catastrophe. Penn is far behind its peer schools in divesting its endowment from fossil fuels. Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton have all made public commitments and taken significant steps towards divestment. Each of these commitments came after sustained student pressure, protest, and direct action. In 2019, hundreds of protesters stormed the field during the Harvard/Yale football game to demand divestment — a successful action that, in part, inspired Fossil Free Penn to do the same.
Meanwhile, Penn is also complicit in the ongoing gentrification of West Philadelphia. Sixty-eight Black and low-income families are being forced to leave their homes at 40th and Market streets, while the Philadelphia public school system is in dire need of funds. Protesters are demanding Penn to commit five to 10 million dollars to stop the sale of the Townhomes to developers and to finally make payments in lieu of taxes. But just as the University resists divestment, it is also actively harming this city if it does not help to save the UC Townhomes or pay PILOTs. Whatever the administration tells us, Penn chose to criminalize protest rather than publicly support climate science and social justice at Homecoming.
In my classes, I try to teach students to think critically about the stories institutions and governments tell about their own histories, morals, and ethics. Literature can teach us to empathize with those who are different from us — and it can also teach us to unpack and interpret narratives and to resist taking language at face value. The statement released by the administration shortly after the protest reminds me of something out of George Orwell’s 1984. The statement reads: “The intentional disruption of today’s football game was neither an appropriate expression of free speech nor consistent with Penn’s open expression guidelines.” By calling this powerful direct action an “intentional disruption,” Penn is undermining the gravity of the issues, shifting the blame from its own unethical investments to the students who are resisting its authority. There is nothing “inappropriate” about disrupting a football game — a low-stakes, leisurely pastime — to demand that Penn take action against the climate crisis and housing crisis, which threaten lives every day.
The statement continues: “Penn’s Guidelines on Open Expression champion these rights [to free speech, thought, inquiry, and lawful assembly] while also affirming that University business … shall not be infringed upon.” When the Open Expression Guidelines claim to champion the very rights that the administration undermines and criminalizes, then these guidelines must be broken. When is the “appropriate” time to divest from fossil fuels? Why must University business not be infringed upon while Philadelphians are losing their homes just down the road? With this statement, Penn is telling us that business matters more than free speech, just as growing the University endowment — which, again, ballooned to over $20 billion during the pandemic — trumps taking serious action against climate change and making meaningful contributions to this community.
Even though I’ll be graduating from Penn with a Ph.D. in English soon, I don’t plan on walking. It’s a huge privilege to be receiving my doctoral degree from this University — one that has afforded me countless professional opportunities — and I’m honored to be in a community with activists on campus. But, if I’m lucky enough to get a job at another institution, I’m dreading the first day I’ll be expected to wear my academic regalia. The University has betrayed all of its students who care about mitigating climate catastrophe and who care about cultivating a city where all residents can thrive.
As an environmental justice scholar, how can I represent a school that refuses to divest from fossil fuels, that refuses to pay PILOTs to its city, that has not helped stop the displacement of 68 families living just blocks away from the heart of campus, and — on top of all of this — that detains protesters with its own private police force? On the day that I finish my Ph.D — a six-year effort with some of the greatest teachers and colleagues I’ve ever had — I will be ashamed to be graduating from Penn.
JANE ROBBINS MIZE is a Ph.D. candidate in English who studies literature, environment, and environmental justice. Her email is email@example.com.