Students March for Divestment

by / divestment (1) in News /
On March 4. over 125 students march from Proctor to Old Chapel to attempt to persuade the administration to divest from fossil fuels and gun manufacturers, despite the wind and snow. (Paul Gerard)

In the midst of a heavy snowfall on Monday, March 4, over 125 students marched from Proctor terrace to the College’s administrative center in Old Chapel, carrying signs, chanting and wearing orange squares, during what organizers called “a national day of action” for divestment.

The event was one of over 20 such demonstrations that took place on college campuses on the same day across the country according to student organizer Jenny Marks ’14. While national events differed in form, all student groups had a similar demand — the divestment of college and university endowment funds from fossil fuel manufacturing companies in the fight for climate justice.

At Middlebury, student organizers presented the same request as seven students voiced on Feb. 16 when they presented to the Board of Trustees. “By March 15,” organizer Laura Berry ’16 explained, “we want the Board of Trustees to make a public statement that by 2016 the College will divest fully from fossil fuel and arms manufacturing companies.”

Berry was just one of the many students responsible for generating enthusiasm for Monday’s event, a rally organized by a coalition of pro-divestment student groups, including Divest for Our Future and the Socially Responsible Investment Club.

During the march, the mass of students wound around snow-covered paths, chanting, “Money for students’ education, not for climate devastation. Money for homes and education, not for war and exploitation.”

Inside Old Chapel, Tim Spears, vice president for academic affairs, was one of the few senior-level administrators present at the time of the demonstration.

“I think it’s an admirable display of political spirit and commitment on a snowy March day,” he said from his office, as students marched around the front of the building.

Down below, students voiced a variety of perspectives on the event and on the divestment movement at large.

Steven Kasparek ’16, a student with no prior involvement with the divestment movement on campus, was visibly impressed.

“I’m really glad that I came,” he said. “I feel like this is a really powerful group that we have out here right now, and the fact that there are students who are passionate about this type of thing is something new to me, because normally students aren’t so concerned about the future and about preserving it for generations to come.”

Drew Vollmer ’13, a student who passed by the march but did not attend the demonstration, aired an alternative perspective.

“At Middlebury, environmental groups can mobilize lots of supporters and there are no opposition groups,” he said. “Student rallies like the divestment march are, to me, largely a product of one group’s passion about the issue and not necessarily a result of reasoned and well-considered arguments.”

Vollmer was critical of the movement, explaining that he believed divestment to be an “ineffective gesture” in the campaign against climate change. “Advocates seem to argue that oil money in politics is the sole factor stopping climate action and that divestment would remove oil’s legitimacy and pave the way for a carbon tax, but I think this is a horrible oversimplification. […] Climate action is necessary, but efforts are much more productive elsewhere.”

Yet student organizers disagreed, likely buoyed in part by the enthusiasm exhibited by other pro-divestment student groups on the national stage.

“Today’s events around the country were an incredible indicator of the potential for the American students’ movement of our generation,” said Marks. “The rhetoric is clear: divestment is a tactic, climate justice is the goal.”

In mid-February, Marks was joined by Molly Stuart ’15.5 and Teddy Smyth ’15, two other student organizers, at the Power Up! Divestment Convergence at Swarthmore College. The event, hosted by Swarthmore Mountain Justice, brought together student representatives from 75 colleges and universities to discuss divestment and other tactics associated with the climate justice movement.

At the convergence, students attended panels, participated in discussions and built upon the idea for the march fo(u)rth event, playing off of the syntactic momentum imbedded within the date.

During the week following the convergence, student organizers from schools across the nation collaborated over email and by conference call, coordinating photos and videos to be captured during the events, which organizers plan to use as they move forward.

Students from Harvard University, Mount Holyoke College and Locust Valley High School also created a Facebook page to promote the event, which by midnight on Monday night displayed photos of March Fo(u)rth demonstrations that had occurred at Smith College, Bowdoin College, Stanford University and Brown University, as well as at Middlebury College.

Following Monday’s demonstration, Marks described her motivation.

“These endowments belong to us and exist for us — colleges and universities must be educational institutions first and corporations second,” she wrote in an email.

“If the students demand divestment from destructive industries, it is ultimately our money, our school, our power that will ensure that this happens — it’s our future and the lives of folks around the world that we are fighting for.”

  • Alan B. ’89

    “…it’s ultimately our money…” Well, that is part of the problem. It isn’t these students’ money, or at least it is more than just theirs with strings attached. The college’s endowment has grown with the college, with the first endowment coming in the early 1800s. Most donors restrict the use of their endowment gifts, and the percentage of any given college endowment that is “unrestricted” and can be used as the college wishes is limited. Moreover, the whole issue of inter-generational transfer and support seems to be missing in this movement: because past donors gave their support to the college since the 1800s, today’s students benefit greatly. Are these students willing to sacrifice current spending to ensure that future students benefit from past generosity if the board of trustees decides to pursue a different investment strategy that will reduce endowment earnings and financial aid just to name one expenditure to possibly suffer?