Fossil Free Northwestern protestors were literally left out in the cold on Friday night as the group tried to make its divestment demands known to Northwestern's Board of Trustees. FFNU planned to march on the board's meeting which was scheduled for that afternoon, in order to confront the trustees as they left the meeting – though by the time they arrived, most of the trustees had already left. FFNU, formerly known as Divest NU, had organized a similar march last year.
Led by Medill junior Scott Brown and SESP junior Christina Cilento, a group of about 80 students, along with a few Evanston residents, started its March on the Board of Trustees from the Norris Center at 4:45 p.m. with the intention of directly demanding to the board members leaving the Allen Center that they divest all of Northwestern's holdings in companies that profit off of coal, which is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the U.S.
"We're here because some of that money is invested in companies that are violating human rights every single day," Brown said. "There are people dying because of fossil fuels being extracted and fossil fuels being burned, and we will not stand for that."
On the short march over, students carried signs ranging from "We will be on the right side of history" to "There is no Planet B," and chanting "What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!" Once the protestors arrived at the Allen Center, they formed an arc around the front door and were instructed by Brown to point their cellphone flashlights at the building to "shine a light on the Board."
According to FFNU's official Facebook page and several student speakers, the organizers deemed it necessary to assemble outside the meeting to give the Board members their demands because the Board had refused to meet with the group and "ignored [its] plea for climate justice."
"It's really, really, really saddening to me that Northwestern does not value student and community voices enough to say 'we will listen to you and we will listen to your demands,'" Cilento said. "But that's why we're here, because they're not giving us the chance, and we're saying 'no, give us that,' we're taking the chance anyway."
The group then recited its specific demands in unison, which were:
"We, the students, alumni and faculty members, of Fossil Free Northwestern, are here today because the Board of Trustees refused to grant us a voice at this meeting. But we refuse to let the impact of our endowment on climate change and human rights be ignored. We demand the following:
- Immediate and formal divestment of all coal holdings, and a commitment to avoid future re-investment.
- An extended discussion with the Board of Trustees investment subcommittee at their next meeting to discuss the importance of divestment and the UN Principles of responsible endowments, and to put an end to the negligience and lack of accountability we have seen from the subcommittee members.
- The creation of a committee of socially responsible investments, including students and faculty, to allow the Northwestern community a consistent voice in the Board's investments, and to ensure our endowment does not support the violation of human rights."
Both FFNU leaders cited the University's Friday announcement that it had signed onto the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investing ("addressing the importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues for investors to consider when making investment choices" according to a press release) as a step in the right direction, but not enough. Brown pointed out that in the first line of the press release, it mentions that NU is joining Harvard and UC-Berkeley, and speculated that the university is trying to follow in Harvard's footsteps.
"I've long joked that if we want divestment at Northwestern we should convince Harvard to divest," Cilento said afterwards. "It's just kind of indicative of the fact that the Board of Trustees is interested in paying lip service to us by saying they're going to do good things but not actually putting those into action. So it's maybe a step, but it's not enough of a step. We really need a giant leap to get the endowment to be where we want it to be in terms of social responsibility."
After the protestors had been assembled for about twenty minutes in front of what appeared to be a mostly empty Allen Center, Northwestern Vice President and Chief Investment Officer William McLean came outside and agreed to bring a trustee to hear FFNU's demands. But ten minutes later he came back with NU Executive Vice President Nim Chinniah and said that most trustees had left. The group read its demands again anyway. McLean responded by referencing the Principles for Responsible Investing, which was met with cries of "Not good enough!"
"I hear you when you say it's not enough but I'm just saying give credit where credit is due, [your efforts] have made a difference," McLean said. "We look forward to continuing to discuss this."
McLean returned inside, but the protestors started up a "We want more (divest!)" chant until Brown stopped them to report a new development. He said McLean had told him that the Trustees had met at 3:45 p.m. and were now all at dinner, but he claimed this was a lie. He said he had an inside source that told him that the trustees would be eating dinner at 6 p.m. at SPAC. That's where the group headed, chanting, "No divestment, eat your words."
NUPD officers barred the protestors from going in through the front doors, so the group went along to the third floor of the parking garage on the west side of the building, where they were met by Todd Adams, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students. He informed them that the trustees dinner was a closed event at The Garage, so the group packed into elevators and went downstairs to a small enclosed hallway near the entrance to the dinner. Police officers were waiting for them there, but just minutes after they had shooed everybody away from the elevators, one of the trustees stepped out of one in what Cilento later called a "serendipitous" moment.
The group read its demands to the trustee named T. Bondurant French, who responded by saying the Board is trying to be transparent and accommodate student activist groups, and that only a fraction of a percent of the $10 billion endowment is in coal. Cilento engaged in a brief conversation with him, but he was unwilling to verbally commit to any level of divestment. Following the dialogue with French, the group gathered for a closing moment of silence for all who have died due to climate change, and then dispersed.
Cilento said the demonstration was a success, and that she was pleased that FFNU had the chance to talk with French and read its demands to him. But, she said, there is still work to be done.
"[Northwestern has] kind of been divesting by themselves just because they know [coal] is not a good investment," Cilento said afterwards. "I don't know why they're so attached to this last bit of coal. Maybe it's to not give us the satisfaction of saying 'we got rid of coal.' From our standpoint, if there is so little invested in coal, why is it so hard to get rid of it?"