Updated: Jul 24, 2021
Taking stock of two divestment movements at Columbia.
By Yasemin Akçagüner
When the University announced in June that it was divesting from the private prison industry, the decision came as a pleasant surprise. For Columbia Prison Divest (CPD), the student activist group pushing the University to divest its approximately $10 million from private prisons, it had been an arduous, yet nonetheless swift, victory. A year and a half after CPD’s campaign began in the fall of 2013, they won.
The story is rather different for Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ)—a student group that has been campaigning since 2012. CDCJ, which aims to get the University to divest from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies, has not only been campaigning for longer, but also has more people backing its cause. And yet, they have had no luck with their campaign so far. Why the contrast?
Money might be one factor. According to an email from Robert Hornsby, Assistant Vice President for Media Relations, “As of June 30, 2015 the University’s direct holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies was about $11 million, or 0.1 percent of the total endowment.” This would seem to put climate divestment in the same league as that of prison divestment: Columbia’s divestment from private prison companies, namely CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and G4S (formerly Group 4 Securicor), represented around $10 million in shares from its direct holdings.
But that’s not the whole story. While Columbia only discloses its direct holdings, they make up merely 10 percent of the $9.2 billion endowment. No University material mentions the other 90 percent outright, but one can assume that it is in indirect holdings.
According to Iliana Salazar-Dodge, CC ’16, one of the main organizers with CDCJ, when the indirect holdings are taken into account, the entire investment in fossil fuels likely adds up to much more money than the $11 million figure. Most universities, she says, have approximately 3-6 percent of their entire endowment in fossil fuels. This could mean that Columbia could have invested around $400 million in fossil fuels when its indirect holdings are also taken into account. CDCJ, is insisting on divestment from both direct and indirect holdings, is going one step further than Prison Divest. Simply put, the stakes are higher with fossil fuel divestment. It’s a costlier decision to make.
In April of 2015, the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ASCRI), a division of the Office of the Executive Vice President for Finance and Information Technology, finally endorsed Prison Divest’s proposal, but the process had been fraught with miscommunications and bureaucratic holdup. Part of the problem is that the ACSRI membership turns over every year, which means that activist groups have to re-explain their cause to each new batch of committee members. For CPD, the bureaucratic deadlock meant seeking alternative ways of making their case.
“At the beginning of the campaign, the goal was really like, ‘We want President Bollinger to respond to us. He needs to take this to the Board of Trustees. They should be reaching out to us or at least responding to our attempts to engage with them,’” says Dunni Oduyemi, CC ’16 and one of the lead organizers for CPD, “And when that wasn’t happening, it was kind of a matter of being disruptive and not necessarily antagonistic, but just wanting to hold them accountable in public spaces.”
Using carefully planned direct actions and civil disobedience (silent protests outside President Bollinger’s classroom and staged sit-ins at Low Library), CPD engaged the administration informally, successfully combining this strategy with formal engagement through the process with the ACSRI and presentations for professors. But with higher stakes and more consequential demands, CDCJ has to tread carefully.
ACSRI rejected CDCJ’s bid back in May of 2014, claiming in their response that they rejected CDCJ’s “proposal” because it did not meet the criteria for divestment. But CDCJ members have a different story: all say that they had simply delivered a presentation to ACSRI explaining their position, but not a physical proposal to be voted upon. In an angry statement released to Bwog, they complained of how ACSRI had not been transparent in their dealings with the group.
After rejecting CDCJ’s requests last year, ACSRI this semester announced its own proposal. Titled “Stand Up for Science,” it calls for divestment from companies that fund climate denialism. But so aggressively asserting the existence of climate change, while arguably perpetuating it, seems like a case of cognitive dissonance. Salazar-Dodge thinks the proposal is an empty gesture. In her opinion, Stand Up for Science can’t even serve as a preliminary step for full divestment from fossil fuels.
As CDCJ’s process with ACSRI remains fruitless, CPD provides a model for how CDCJ might proceed, while remaining sensitive to the differences in the campaigns. Oduyemi says that while she and many other CPD members are personally supportive of CDCJ, they don’t have plans to officially collaborate. But the strategies employed by CDCJ this year have shown evidence of some inspiration.
CDCJ has begun to explore a new approach: civil disobedience. In a protest at Low Steps on October 14, staged as Trustees discussed fossil fuel divestment at a meeting, CDCJ had students sign a civil disobedience pledge. As of October 23, 199 students have signed, pledging to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience unless Columbia commits to divestment from the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies.
The Low Steps protest, part of a national climate change day of action, was marked with NYPD presence. Activists were quick to attribute the cops to the University, but when I spoke to Jim McShane, head of Public Safety, at the protest, about why the police were on campus, he asked me the same question back. “When people see police on our campus they assume it has got something to do with us.” McShane said. “They were on our campus and I asked them to leave. I asked them to leave three times.”
As inappropriate as the police presence was to the scale of the protest, it likely gave CDCJ a boost: 30 officers surrounding as many students is a powerful image, especially when Black Lives Matter activism has been so prevalent on campus. This was a point made by an editorial in Spectator the next day, which denounced the administration for this move — even if, as McShane insisted, they weren’t responsible for it. It’s the sort of strategy that has worked well for campus activist causes like No Red Tape (when PrezBo removed their mattresses from outside his house) and Potluck’s Black Lives Matter banner, ostensibly removed from their house by the administration for reasons of fire safety. Both incidents resulted in increased rallying around those causes, and served to make the administration look tone-deaf and overtly PR-concerned. That could serve CDCJ well in getting more people to rally around its cause— though whether the Trustees will like the message is another question.
Personalizing the Narrative
A main strength of CPD was in widening their conversation to center not just around the excesses of the American prison industrial complex, but to link their fight to a larger fight for social justice.
A quote from Oduyemi in CPD’s press release announcing Columbia’s decision to divest from the private prison industry clearly stated: “We targeted the university’s investments in two private prison companies, but we hope that private prison divestment campaigns … can help us start working towards divesting from the idea that prisons equal justice, which we believe to be fundamentally racist.”
Now, CDCJ is making the argument that the impact of climate divest is the heaviest on communities Columbia seeks to incorporate into its student body by way of affirmative action. The real hypocrisy, says Salazar-Dodge, is that while “a lot of the students that they’re trying to get to be at Columbia are those who have those less privileged backgrounds,” Columbia’s investment is contributing to climate change, which “disproportionately impacts low income people of color, especially females, around the world and they’re the people that are the most impacted by climate change and the ones that least contributed to the creation of climate change.”
“I’m a low-income, Mexican, immigrant female. I’m here on behalf of my community and on behalf of students like me who are not here on this campus. And we’re here because Columbia wants diverse students. So the real hypocrisy is that they’re promoting our well being at this institution while profiting off the devastation of our communities, wherever they may be,” Salazar-Dodge says.
This claim to social justice might be more of a stretch for the Trustees. Given Columbia’s institutional history and relationship with the community, divestment from private prisons was a gesture of historical atonement. For Columbia—with a president famous for his pro-affirmative action stance—these issues strike a stronger chord than scientific arguments. CDCJ is smart to personalize the narrative and steer the conversation towards issues of gender and race.
CDCJ’s candlelight vigil on October 29 offers a glimpse of how they hope to do that. Titled ‘Grief and Loss in the Era of Climate Change,’ the event description invites “anybody who has a personal stake in fighting for climate justice” to “share their stories with the larger group.” The focus on sharing stories recalls No Red Tape’s sharing of survivors’ stories at its rallies, speak-outs and days of action.
The event also positions climate change as a shared personal tragedy: for example, last year vigils were held on Low for the school shooting in Peshawar, the Chapel Hill shooting, and the Nepal earthquake. Those occasions were all marked by appeals to the administration to reach out to students who were affected. Ignoring students’ demands for divestment might be a little harder in the face of public outpourings of grief and loss.
As CDCJ looks to escalate its action in the months leading up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in December, the group has to walk a tightrope of confronting the ACSRI and the Trustees without antagonizing them. Asking that Columbia take the lead in divesting fully from fossil fuels, as they were the first University to divest from private prisons, is a lot to ask, but it’s not unreasonable. If CDCJ can make a strong moral appeal to the Trustees, with the support of other activist groups like CPD, they might have a shot.