Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 25, 2020

Refuel teams with Sit-In for divestment campaign

By BRIANNA DANG | February 6, 2020

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NEHA SANGANA/PHOTOGRAPHY EDITOR

Since this fall, student groups Refuel Our Future (Refuel) and the JHU Sit-In (Sit-In) have collaborated in fighting for full fossil fuel divestment at Hopkins. 

Refuel has been holdingFossil Fuel Friday protests on the steps of Gilman Hall every Friday since Nov. 15. The group has stated that the student-led demonstrations will continue until the University has achieved complete divestment.

This past spring, the Sit-In held a protest in Garland Hall spanning over one month that ended after the arrests of four students and three community members. 

The Sit-In is now represented by a coalition of student organizations focused on activism in the Hopkins community. Refuel, which is one such organization, launched in 2011, and has since campaigned for the University to end its investments in companies that produce or sell fossil fuels. 

While the Board of Trustees voted in December 2017 to divest from thermal coal, Refuel has demanded further action. Junior Jeremy Berger, a member of Refuel, criticized the limited scale of the coal divestment effort. Berger compared it to divesting from a company like Sears or Blockbuster, asserting that the coal industry was already on the decline at the time of divestment. 

The University announced its 2017 coal divestment pledge — their first and only climate change divestment effort — after convening a group of Hopkins affiliates, the Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee (PIIAC), to determine whether the University should divest from fossil fuels. 

At the conclusion of its study, PIIAC recommended full divestment from all fossil fuel holdings.

According to Refuel member Colin Bowen, University Chief Investment Officer Jason Perlioni said that the University’s divestment from coal represented about 24 million dollars. Bowen stated that he believes that this vote to divest from coal holdings did not go far enough, adding that members of the Board with potential conflicts of interest may not have recused themselves from this vote.

“The fossil fuel holdings are $414 million, so these are crumbs of the pie,” he said. “There’s no evidence that people who maybe should have recused themselves from this vote due to conflicts of interest even did so.”

Bowen added that Refuel was not able to access information concerning recusals due to conflicts of interest in the divestment vote.

“When we asked the Provost about it, they said that that information, while recorded, is not available,“ Bowen said. 

Berger agreed with Bowen that the University’s coal divestment was minimally impactful compared to what members of Refuel assert is over $400 million that the University holds in energy companies, the majority of which are linked to fossil fuels.

Assistant Vice President of External Relations for the Office of Communications Karen Lancaster explained that while the University remains open to considering new information, any effort to reopen the topic for discussion would need to clear a high bar because a decision was made two years ago.

“We cannot ask trustees, who have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the financial return on investments, to take up a vote without going through the thorough process embedded in PIIAC’s charge,“ Lancaster wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

At the same time, however, she pointed out that the University’s portfolio plans to become less reliant on fossil fuels, as these holdings are less consistently profitable in an era marked by the growth of renewable alternatives. 

“As part of our normal management practice, we are currently deemphasizing fossil fuel companies as a result of our efforts to identify investments that we believe will produce strong positive returns,” Lancaster wrote.

Towards this end, both Refuel and Sit-In representatives met with the Board of Trustees on Dec. 6. Berger recounted a conversation he had during a meeting with Board Member Tony Anderson, where he asked Anderson why the Board of Trustees decided to not adhere to PIIAC’s recommendation and if there were any data that did not support total divestment. According to Berger, Anderson replied that it was a good question and promised to get back to him, but Berger never received any further information.

Andrea Fraser, a graduate student and a member of the Sit-In, explained that the Sit-In seeks to be part of a larger movement against what she referred to as the University’s institutional violence. 

Fraser criticized the University’s response to the PIIAC decision, pointing out that Hopkins disregarded the recommendations made by the commission it had created.

“If you can’t follow your own report, how can you tell anyone that there are proper channels in this system you’ve created?” Fraser said.

She pointed out that few students in the Sit-In movement felt that the meeting with the Board of Trustees would actually make a difference.

Junior Maya Flannery, a member of GreenHacks and the University’s Sustainability Leadership Council (SLC), agreed with Fraser. She added that while the University often responds to student voices, it rarely takes them into serious consideration.

Student activism faces many barriers on campus, Flannery argued, including rules set by the administration, difficulty communicating with the student body and the pre-professional orientation of most students. 

Fraser, too, was critical of the University for not being receptive to student voices.

“This is not democracy,” Fraser said. “It’s fascism. That is not what environmental health and justice is.”

The SLC, launched last Earth Day, advises Provost Sunil Kumar on policies and programs to guide the University on both local and global environmental sustainability. 

Flannery stated that she felt the creation of the SLC was a notable step, albeit a small one, towards the administration heeding student voices. 

Lancaster expressed to The News-Letter that the University has been taking action to promote sustainability.

She stated that the University took a major step in reducing its carbon footprint by working with renewable energy supplier Constellation to get two-thirds of its power from solar energy. The University’s overall goal is to achieve a 51 percent reduction of its carbon emissions by 2025. 

Berger remarked that students have more power than they might be aware of to increase the University’s sustainability further.

“As undergrads in this institution, we have a lot of power to hold our institution accountable,” Berger said. “To put pressure on that institution to affect change in ways voting alone can’t.”

Fraser added that the University’s fossil fuel investments represent only the beginning of a larger issue with the University. Hopkins has the greatest number of military contracts among higher education institutions, Fraser explained, and armed conflicts are devastating to both people and the environment. 

Berger echoed Fraser’s sentiment, explaining that Refuel Our Future and the Sit-In decided to collaborate in holding Fossil Free Fridays because of the intersectionality of the problems within and supported by the Institution.

Since Fossil Free Fridays began in November, Berger stated that the demonstrations have garnered significant attention. 

In addition to these rallies, he explained that Refuel would participate in Fossil Fuel Divestment Day on Feb. 13, joining with numerous other divestment groups around the country. 

Berger stated that the divestment movement is growing in strength and will continue to escalate until universities take responsibilities for their students’ futures.

“As a leading research and public health institution, we’d expect Hopkins to be leading the way in taking action on following what science demands is ecologically responsible,” Berger said. “We’re merely advocating for Hopkins to be a leader where it claims to be, but time is running out.”

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