Divestment has been a demand leveraged by student activists to fight several social issues, including apartheid in South Africa and the unethical practices of tobacco manufacturers. For a little over a decade, student activists have found a new cause around which to mobilize and demand divestment: climate change.
The fossil fuel divestment movement, which primarily calls for universities to remove their endowments’ investments in gas, coal and oil companies, began on U.S. college campuses in 2011 with Swarthmore College. Since then, over 100 U.S. colleges and universities have divested, ranging from public institutions like the University of California system to members of the Ivy League like Harvard University.
Divestment movements have evolved over time and used a variety of approaches to enact changes, including mobilizing stakeholder groups within universities and launching formal legal complaints. Now, many of these movements also aim to prevent fossil fuel companies from contributing to research funding, emphasizing the importance of academic integrity and independence.
Refuel Our Future (Refuel) — a student-led, fossil fuel divestment campaign — has been active at Hopkins since 2011. The group has previously staged a sit-in at Garland Hall, hosted Fossil Free Fridays and participated in national, divestment-movement initiatives.
In 2017, the University announced its intention to divest from thermal coal following the recommendation of the Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee — composed of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff — for the University to divest from fossil fuels.
Former Refuel organizer Rohit Sivananthan reflected on how thermal coal divestment increased the University’s status in an interview with The News-Letter.
“Hopkins was very late to the party, and it didn't really hurt them,” he said. “I feel like their reputation [gained] from it.”
In an interview with The News-Letter, former Refuel organizer Elly Ren noted that the likelihood of Hopkins divesting depends on the actions of its peer institutions.
Since then, Refuel has continued to advocate for complete divestment from fossil fuel companies. In 2021, they filed a complaint to the Maryland attorney general on the basis that the University violated its fiduciary duty as a nonprofit organization.
Sivananthan highlighted how this is a new approach within the divestment movement.
“Three or four years ago, it would have been crazy to suggest that climate change companies were culpable of anything by law, but that's not crazy anymore,” he said. “Universities are nonprofits, and they benefit from that in their taxes... Nonprofits have two financial responsibilities: One, to serve the greater good... and two, they have a responsibility to themselves to make themselves stronger financially.”
In recent years, the divestment movement has also turned its attention to research funding from fossil fuel companies.
In an interview with The News-Letter, co-leader of Fossil Free Stanford Zoe Edelman discussed the background of the group. There has been an active fossil fuel divestment at Stanford University since 2012. Stanford divested from coal in 2014, but the Board of Trustees and faculty senate voted against divesting from oil and gas companies in 2020. In February 2022, Fossil Free Stanford filed a complaint with the California attorney general calling for Stanford’s divestment from fossil fuels.
Edelman summarized the two current fronts of the divestment movement at Stanford: the University’s endowment and research funding at the new Doerr School of Sustainability, the latter of which faced criticism for openly accepting fossil fuel funding for research and concerns about its academic integrity.
"Some of the faculty are directly speaking about divestment when referring to their own research and how they strive not to accept fossil fuel money,“ she said.
Alex Norbrook, a student coordinator for Divest Princeton, spoke about the timing of Princeton’s decision to divest in relation to other members of the Ivy League in an interview with The News-Letter.
“Princeton does not lead, it follows,” he said. “Despite what it may try to pretend, it follows the lead of other Ivies, and they really take it to heart when people call attention to the fact that other Ivies are beating them out.”
The group’s campaigns have included strikes, demonstrations, referenda and a formal complaint to the state attorney general. These strikes have often been in coordination with alumni and faculty members.
Despite divesting, Princeton has continued its partnership with BP, a global energy company, to support the Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Norbrook criticized this partnership on the basis of academic integrity.
“This is kind of a damning research partnership. It undermines academic integrity at Princeton... [which is] supposed to be independent,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be influenced by any conflicting interests [like] corporations.”
Edelman stated that the students’ focus on academic and career ambitions makes it difficult to build an active movement.
"Especially at a school like Stanford, where there's so much draw to engage in extracurriculars that in some way boost your future career goals... a lot of people need to focus on postsecondary aspirations, but it can be really hard to get students to be involved in activist organizations," she said. "We're definitely a smaller group, but the members who are pretty active and engaged are very dedicated."
Echoing Edelman, Sivananthan cited Hopkins students’ academic focus as a factor that has made recruiting members challenging. According to him, the meager school spirit has contributed to the lack of activism on campus.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Divest Princeton’s priorities shifted, as described by Norbrook.
“In terms of the student-organizing side, there was a bit of a hit from COVID-19,” he said. “That allowed a lot of research and digging in using online resources and looking at the financials, but one challenge that we've had is to grow the movement and try to build a broad base of support at an Ivy which isn't known today for its particularly rambunctious, activist scene.”
Similarly, Ren highlighted that the transience of the student body and the pandemic presented barriers to expansion.
“People graduated, and it's hard to keep momentum with these campaigns,” she said. “Another big thing was COVID-19. Having to organize online and dealing with the pandemic... made it harder to raise awareness in the student body, but we did do a lot more internal work.”