Cowardice by Committee

Image courtesy of Emilia Fernández

On the morning of October 22, the first day of the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition’s three-day occupation of Cross Campus, we received an email from President Salovey announcing the creation of a new Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Practices (CFFIP). The committee, we were told, would “guide the university as it evaluates its investment policies in relation to companies producing fossil fuels,” and deliver a report during the Spring 2021 semester. As we loaded our banners into our car and prepared to set up for the long day ahead, we discussed the news with both wry amusement and palpable frustration. We had already endured multiple meetings with Yale administration members in which we were shouted at, condemned, and urged to abandon the action. The timing of this announcement —made via Yale Today less than an hour before the start of the occupation—was Yale’s newest strategy to stifle our message. While the formation of the CFFIP appears great on the surface, Yale students deserve to know why it is deeply flawed and insufficient.

We are, of course, proud to see that the tireless organizing of the Endowment Justice Coalition and the outspoken support of our allies have forced Yale and President Salovey to respond. But the nature of their response—to form yet another committee—is insultingly inadequate. Yale has done the bare minimum by including two climate scientists in the membership of the CCFIP, and by extension in the decision-making around its decades-long stance against divestment. But even if the university eventually chooses to listen to the scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is a danger to humanity, it will be too little, too late for the university to take any meaningful stance on the issue. No longer can Yale be a leader in divestment and climate justice. The administration has no choice but to follow leading institutions who have already made that decision as a straggler—Georgetown, Brown, Cambridge, and Oxford among the most recent.

For those of us who are familiar with the history of the divestment movement at Yale, Salovey’s announcement brought a distinct sense of déjà vu. The Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR), whose mandate is virtually the same as that of the Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Practices (CFFIP), has already existed for almost 50 years. Fossil Free Yale spent five years presenting to the ACIR on the countless ways in which fossil fuel companies pose “grave social injury” to humanity. Every time, activists drew on environmental science and the news of natural disasters heightened by global warming to show the ever-increasing urgency of the climate crisis. It is outrageous that Yale has ignored its students’ continuous protests and advocacy for years just to create another committee. Equally outrageous is the CFFIP’s task—to decide whether fossil fuels are a grave danger to our society and our environment, as if it were not a well-established fact. Moreover, one of the charges of the CFFIP is to collect input from the community. Yet this commitment conveniently ignores eight years of peaceful protest, collaboration with university administrators, and community-wide polling in favor of divestment.

Yale has tried to make it seem like this committee is different because it will include experts in the field of climate science. But administrators actually appointed the same person to chair the CFFIP as they did to lead the ACIR for the past 10 years: Jonathan Macey. In 2013, Macey was an alternate board nominee to the Hess Corporation, an oil and gas company. He is not a neutral figure in this issue, nor does he have the interests of the entire Yale community at heart. Clearly, the CFFIP is a bureaucratic maneuver to improve the optics around Yale’s response to climate change while maintaining the very structures that impede any real action. 

In short, Yale has created yet another committee that will only come up with a recommendation six months from now. This timeline disregards all calls for climate justice. Further, the administration did not even consider the issue of forgiving Puerto Rican debt—which has long been advocated for in tandem with divestment but was since was sold by one of Yale’s fund managers, Baupost. This action is part of a pattern in which committees and reports serve as a tactic for Yale to seem accountable without taking meaningful action. 

After a Yale and Hamden police officer shot Paul Witherspoon and Stephanie Washington in 2019, the allied students and community members of Black Students for Disarmament at Yale (BSDY), Black Lives Matter New Haven, and other organizers mobilized to demand change. In response, Yale decided to hire the consulting firm 21CP Solutions to investigate the Yale Police Department and draft a report, which was published a year late and only after pressure from activists. We highlight Yale’s response to BSDY’s demands to draw attention to how Yale has failed to protect even its own students through similar evasion tactics. Our fight for endowment justice is closely aligned with and supportive of BSDY’s calls to disarm, defund, and dismantle the YPD. The radical change we demand means withdrawing Yale’s capital from oppressive practices—such as its holdings in Puerto Rican debt, its investments in fossil fuels, and its privatized police force—and investing that capital directly into the New Haven community. 

As we gathered on Cross Campus to protest Yale’s unethical investments, we listened to speakers, read articles, continued conversations, and sang. Many students, mostly first-years who were unfamiliar with our movement, approached us to ask about our banners. A few stayed for many hours, and later came to our next coalition meeting. As we watched our numbers grow, we knew our action had been successful. In the Endowment Justice Coalition, we, of course, demand that Yale divest from fossil fuels and cancel its predatory holdings in distressed debt. But we also pass down knowledge, engage in conversations, and build our community. By the end of the day, we were reminded that there is more power in collective action than there ever will be in the bureaucratic back-and-forth of committees created in bad faith. We will continue to speak up and apply pressure through direct action until Yale commits to real and radical change. 

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