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Less Hypocrisy, More Leadership

Opinion | December 5, 2016

Activism on campuses has always been a struggle between young, idealistic students and older, conservative administrators. Social movements throughout the ages have been born on college campuses: anti-nuclear proliferation, anti-apartheid, and fossil fuel divestment, to name a few. There is a very understandable tension between students, whose tenures at their institutions are usually only four years, and administrators, whose entire careers and livelihoods are based around maintaining institutional stability. Students believe in radical progress, and aligning our actions with our values; administrators believe in institutional reputation, and maintaining their bottom line. For many a student activist, it can be hard to swallow that our schools seems to function more as corporations than as beacons of innovation and moral leadership. But like I said, this age-old struggle is justified. Schools need to make money to stay open and provide the educational experiences that inspire students to pursue positive change. What is not justified is for Tufts University, a school that claims to promote social justice among students and innovate on issues such as climate change, to, in reality, punish on-campus activism, ignore its ethical responsibilities as a thought leader in society, and disrespect the members of its community with a lack of transparency and false assertions of vision.

           I am only using myself as an example, although there are many more. I have been a member of Tufts Climate Action (TCA), our climate justice student group, since my freshman year. Back then, we were known as Tufts Divest, and singularly focused on pushing Tufts to remove its investments in the fossil fuel industry. Our position was—and remains—that the moral imperative of climate change—a crisis that is already affecting millions of poor people and communities of color that did the least to cause it—necessitates urgent action. Highly respected universities like Tufts should have an ethical obligation to use their public influence to act on climate change. This is not a far-off problem that we can continue to ignore. Summer temperatures in the Middle East are already unlivable, reaching up to 130˚F, killing crops, animals, and people. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is estimated to cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year. By 2100, 30 percent of Boston will be under water due to sea level rise. The fossil fuel industry has known about climate change for over 50 years, and has been spending billions of dollars to spread misinformation and block legislative solutions. Divestment is about removing the social and political license of this industry to profit from destroying our planet. It’s about creating the political will to transition to a clean power economy, because clearly this will doesn’t currently exist. Tufts University claims to “innovate in the face of complex challenges” and encourage students to “distinguish themselves as active citizens of the world.” And yet, over $70 million of our endowment is invested in fossil fuels. Unlike many universities, we even have direct holdings in fossil fuel companies, meaning we are directly endorsing and profiting from this industry, as opposed to only having investments in fossil fuels through diverse, commingled funds.

           We’ve had a student referendum. We’ve had a student government vote. We’ve had a faculty petition, an alumni petition, and most recently, a faculty resolution. All of the efforts of Tufts Climate Action have proven to the administration over and over again that our entire community understands the tragic urgency of climate change and is in favor of fossil fuel divestment—except them. Twice now, the Board of Trustees has chosen not to divest. The most recent decision, which came a few weeks ago, was even more regressive and discouraging than the first. Last time, in 2014, the administration committed to continually review the costs of fossil fuel divestment, and to work with other institutions to pursue a more financially feasible form of divestment, despite not deciding to divest “at this time.” This time, they simply said “no.” “No” to even partial divestment of our direct holdings, “no” to making a statement of moral leadership and “no” to steering our society towards climate justice.

           As a member of Tufts Climate Action, I’ve met with administrators on multiple occasions over the past few years. By the time I started requesting to meet with Tufts’ Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell about continuing to consider divestment, we had already received our first 2014 refusal. My requests were met with unenthusiastic responses about further student involvement with sustainability efforts on campus, or silence. This continued lack of sincere engagement and transparency, as well as the growing momentum of the global fossil fuel divestment movement, led to the TCA sit-in in President Monaco’s office in the spring of 2015. President Monaco’s response to this was two-fold: in public, he praised our activism, even citing it in a speech to prospective students as representative of the passion and determination of Tufts students. Behind closed doors, however, he berated us for violating his space, and far from recognizing the importance of our cause and what might have motivated us to sit in his office for three days without food, only resented our tactics. Every single participant in the sit-in received disciplinary probation, either one or two. I personally received probation level two, a punishment that is usually reserved for cases of plagiarism and sexual assault, not non-violent civil disobedience for the cause of climate justice. The inconsistency the administration showed in doling out this punishment was obvious.

The administrative response to our actions was harsh and intimidating. Giving students probation 1 and 2 is clearly an administration tactic that seeks to scare students away from organizing, and in some cases it has been effective. Many of the TCA members implicated have since left our group, some even vowing never to participate in student activism again. Despite this setback, TCA has continued to make progress towards our goals, and seek engagement with the administration on climate policy. I’ve had several more meetings with administrators, although none of them would admit that they have come about as a result of the sit-in. TCA most recently met with the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. Divestment was given a 20-minute window of this two-hour meeting on October 1, and I was shocked and disappointed that President Monaco chose to take up a large portion of this time by complaining that students and faculty have not given him enough credit for the work he’s done on sustainability. While it’s true that one of his two major platforms upon taking office was sustainability, after setting up the Sustainability Council that issued a single report in 2013, very little has been done in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation. For example, this very report recommended having a sustainability-related distribution requirement, one of many recommendations that have not been acted upon. Of the few things that have been done, the majority of them (the creation of the Sustainable Investment Fund, the Climate Change Symposium of Spring 2016, to name a few) have been a product of TCA’s work. In subsequent meetings, he alluded to his own leadership as being sufficient on its own, and student activists being an inconvenience.

Despite these disappointing shows of limited courage and vision, President Monaco is only part of the problem. He may be a puppet of the administration, but he is not the source of its conservatism. The problem is that at a school that pretends to be a progressive, liberal campus where impassioned students can come express their opinions and pursue their dreams, our administration is afraid of taking any stance that even marginally sets us apart from other schools. Tufts is not living up to its moral potential. The behavior of our administration doesn’t align with its stated values, and is fundamentally opposed to the culture of our campus. Another example is when Bill Cosby was being stripped of his honorary degrees, Tufts was approximately the twentieth school to revoke his degree of about 53. Peter Dolan, the Chairman of our Board, at the time expressed that this was the perfect place for Tufts—not one of the first, and not last, but somewhere right in the middle—a sheep in the herd. For some reason, our administration is so concerned with its reputation and prioritizes not generating any sort of negative press so doggedly that it stymies any sort of legitimate, urgent progress—like divestment from fossil fuels—that should be taking place.

The quirky, diverse, and activated student culture is at risk if our administration continues to act in such a two-faced manner. I understand that we need to worry about our reputation and our profit margin to ensure we can sustain all of the wonderful learning, research, civic engagement and activism that happen here. But we should also be worried about whether our reputation actually matches our values and administrative behavior. Right now, it doesn’t. So many of us came to Tufts because we thought the administration took seriously its institutional responsibility to confront challenges like climate change.  In an era of a presidential elect that believes climate change is a Chinese hoax, the need for universities to fulfill this responsibility has never been more critical. Historical aspects of Tufts climate policy, like the Talloires declaration, would support this, but recent inaction would seem to prove otherwise. Considering the extreme urgency and the moral imperative of climate change, divestment is the least we should be doing. We should be divesting from fossil fuels, using our lobbying power to call for a carbon tax, and implementing on-campus sustainability programs. We shouldn’t be worrying about whether or not our President has his feelings hurt by student activists. As for divestment, no one wants Tufts to lose money (including Tufts Climate Action), and we don’t have to. After Stanford divested from coal, they reported a 7 percent investment gain, outperforming Harvard, Yale, and MIT’s un-divested endowments, as well as the 5.2 percent S&P 500 increase from the same period. The price of crude oil is down 60 percent since 2014, and fossil fuel company stocks are suffering because of it. Fossil fuels are bad investments. We are transitioning to a clean power economy because we have to. It’s not a question of how, but when. It’s a question of whether Tufts will be remembered as a leader of this effort among its students and its peers, or not.

I think our administration needs to make up its mind. Either be honest about its conservative intentions, and stop encouraging students and faculty that want to have memorable, positive impacts in the world from coming here, or start to follow the example of its more driven students and staff, and of its own mission.

Lead with us.