Fossil Free NU plans sit-in after Board of Trustees refuses to meet at March conference


Daily file photo by Jeanne Kuang

Students protest Northwestern’s investments in the coal industry in 2014. Members of Fossil Free Northwestern, the group pushing for divestment from coal, oil and gas companies, have been fighting against the University’s investment in the fossil fuel industry for years.

David Fishman, Reporter

The full Northwestern Board of Trustees will not meet with Fossil Free NU — a group seeking coal divestment — at the board’s March conference, Chief Investment Officer Will McLean said.

Community outreach coordinator Christina Cilento said the group has sought to meet with the full board since November 2014, after discussing the University’s stance on divestment with the chair of the Investment Committee. Though the group has received “unprecedented” access, she said, the board has acted too slowly on divestment issues.

“The fact of the matter is that climate change is incredibly urgent and at this point we can’t really remain passive or inactive,” the SESP junior said. “The board just doesn’t feel the sense of urgency around this matter as much as falling markets globally.”

McLean, whose office facilitated a number of meetings between Fossil Free NU and board members, said volatile markets meant coal divestment was not a priority at this meeting but told the students he would relay a summary of recent conversations directly to the Investment Committee.

“In our minds the issue has been debated and discussed thoroughly at numerous meetings between Fossil Free NU and Investment Committee members. The students have been heard and there’s no reason to take it any further at this time,” he said. “The primary role of the endowment at a university is not to be a mechanism for social commentary, it’s to earn a return that allows students and professors to have financial resources to come to school here and to teach.”

In the future, the University may adopt a socially responsible investment committee, which would include students, faculty and administrators, due in part to efforts made by Fossil Free NU, McLean said. This potential addition follows NU becoming the third U.S. institution to sign the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing, which addresses environmental, social and corporate governance issues.

Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah said the group has already met multiple times with the chair of the Investment Committee, who who has delegated responsibility to speak for and act on behalf of the entire committee.

Chinniah said calls for divestment oversimplify a very complicated issue by boiling it down to a “yes or no answer.” Many things factor into a divestment decision, he said, including impact on other socially responsible concerns like financial aid and NU’s sustainability.

“Every decision that the Investment Committee makes sets a precedent for another group to come up,” he said. “And the issues seem to get broader and broader, and it’s a changing landscape.”

Momentum has slowed since students overwhelmingly passed a referendum last year supporting University divestment from coal, Cilento said. The group has met with trustees several times, delivered hundreds of letters in support of coal divestment to McLean and held a teach-in to inform students about climate justice.

Cilento said she hoped the board’s recent decision would reinvigorate supporters and lead to more proactive action. In March, the group plans to carry out a sit-in or demonstration during the board’s meeting, she said.

“We’re hoping that this decision not to hear us will actually strengthen our movement and rally people around our cause,” she said. “Because if they won’t hear us willingly, we’ll make ourselves heard.”

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