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Vassar College's sit-in calling for divestment, one of many currently being staged on campuses around the country, entered its third day on Wednesday. (Photo: Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign

'Neutral is Not Acceptable': Nationwide Protests Demand Colleges Go Fossil Free

College students in New York, Montana, Arizona, New Hampshire, Maine, and more are standing up to demand their schools divest from fossil fuels

Nika Knight Beauchamp

A series of sit-ins and protests urging universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels gained new strength this week, as students at the University of Montana, Vassar College, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison launched their own actions to combat climate change.

Two nights in a row, on Monday and Tuesday multiple students at Northern Arizona University (NAU) were arrested for taking part in a nonviolent action demanding their school divest from oil and gas companies.

"Our administration would rather arrest students then take serious action on climate change," lamented Fossil Free NAU on its Facebook page.

"We believe that it is morally unjust to be investing in a dying industry," said NAU senior Michaela Mujica-Steiner, one of the coordinators of the school sit-in. "We would like to see the school step up and lead with students who are currently demonstrating leadership."

NAU President Rita Cheng has promised to issue an official statement late Wednesday.

In Montana, 16 protesters were issued citations for trespassing on Tuesday when they refused to vacate a university building where they were attempting a sit-in. 

"It's not acceptable anymore to be neutral on this position," said protester Shannon Curry to local news outlet KPAX. "As students of a university in America, we have incredible privilege and power, and we need to leverage that power to do right in the world, and moving forward is no longer something we can continue to talk about, it's something that we have to do."

In New York, students at Vassar College on Monday began the largest climate justice protest in the school's history, staging a peaceful sit-in outside of the college president's office. The sit-in entered its third day on Wednesday.

"We cannot continue to fund our education with profits made from fossil fuel exploitation, which destroys communities and lives, not just the environment. How can Vassar claim to be a leader when it has so clearly fallen behind in the fight for climate justice?" said Martin Man, a college senior.

Meanwhile, student protesters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are planning a march for divestment on April 29 and soliciting alumni donations for an alternative, fossil-free fund until their school agrees to divest.

"We are chronicling unprecedented chaos in very great detail, yet doing nothing to stop it."
—Leehi Yona, Dartmouth student

The environmental group 350 Madison, a local chapter of 350.org, is taking part in the Multi-School Divestment Fund, which "facilitates tax-deductible donations for those who would like to give to an educational institution but are hesitant because the institution invests in the environmentally, financially, and morally hazardous fossil fuel industry. The Fund invests in socially responsible stocks, including those in sustainable energy companies," as the group wrote in a press release (pdf).

"Donations earmarked for UW-Madison will be held by the Fund until the UW Foundation, which manages the endowment for UW-Madison, makes a public commitment to divest from fossil fuels," explains Abby Ross, of the campaign group Fossil Free UW. "If the UW Foundation does not commit to divestment from fossil fuels by December 31, 2017, all donations earmarked for UW-Madison will be split between schools that have divested from fossil fuel stocks."

Student organizers have already collected alumni donations totaling $7,000 that will not be donated to the university until it fully divests its endowment from fossil fuels.

In Maine, Bowdoin College students advocated for divestment in a letter to the editor. In New Hampshire, Dartmouth students are planning a rally calling for divestment and protesting their school's invitation to Royal Dutch Shell's climate advisor for a campus speech.

Leehi Yona, a senior fellow at Dartmouth and organizer of Divest Dartmouth, decried the "cognitive dissonance" of elite universities. "The college argues that its role is to engage in research; I argue that we are chronicling unprecedented chaos in very great detail, yet doing nothing to stop it," Yona wrote.

"More protests at additional schools are planned for the coming weeks," according a 350.org spokesperson, the Huffington Post reported.

The environmental campaign Go Fossil Free has also collected hundreds of petitions created by students and alumni demanding their universities divest from fossil fuels.

Despite these swelling anti-fossil-fuel protests nationwide and a years-long student campaign, Stanford University disappointed student organizers on Tuesday when the school announced that it would refuse to divest the university's endowment of fossil fuel investments because, the trustees write, the companies Stanford invests in were found to inflict no "social injury."


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