Tufts Climate Action members discuss fossil fuel divestment with trustees

Junior Tufts Climate Action members Brian McGough, Shana Gallagher and Henry Jacqz pose for a portrait in the Terrace Room on Monday, Oct. 5. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

Three students from Tufts Climate Action (TCA) met with university administrators and trustees on Monday to discuss climate change and to push for the Tufts endowment fund to be divested from fossil fuel industries.

The meeting follows a three-day TCA sit-in last April that demanded fossil fuel divestment, resulting in an April 24 agreement between students and the university. The terms of the agreement were such that TCA members would be allowed to meet with trustees to continue the conversation on divestment and that an outside expert on divestment would speak with the Sustainability Fund’s advisory committee. The agreement mandated that the meeting include Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter Dolan and trustee Gloria White-Hammond, and that it take place before the Board of Trustees meeting in November.

TCA members Shana Gallagher, Henry Jacqz and Brian McGough volunteered to represent the student climate group at the meeting, which, as per the April agreement, included Dolan and White-Hammond. According to McGough, the meeting also included university Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell, Chief Investment Officer Sally Dungan and Chair of the Investment Committee for the Board of Trustees Laurie Gabriel, as well as a number of professors: Paul Joseph from the sociology department, Jonathan Kenny from the chemistry department, Gil Metcalf from the economics department and Ann Rappaport, a lecturer in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning program.

According to Dolan, the meeting saw a useful exchange of views between students, faculty, trustees and administrators.

Gallagher, a junior, said she also felt the meeting went well, and although the university did not agree to divest from fossil fuels, they did not rule it out for the future.

“Going in we didn’t…think that we were going to get divestment, that’s not what this was about,” she said. “Not everyone there was in full support of divestment, but it’s by no means off the table, and I think that it is one of multiple…avenues of addressing the climate crisis that the administration is prepared to consider.”

According to Jacqz, a junior, the meeting provided a forum for TCA members and other students to express their concerns about climate change and to highlight the ways in which shifting financial landscapes have made divestment more attractive.

“One of the largest successes that we felt as three students representing the group was in expressing and communicating how drastically the landscape for a divestment initiative at Tufts has changed since the original working group of the board considered divestment,” he said.

Jacqz added that the students told the Board of Trustees that the amount of money that has been divested from fossil fuel industries has increased 50-fold in the past year.

“The funds that have been divested from fossil fuels went from $50 billion last September to $2.6 trillion this September,” he said. “The Board’s hesitance about divestment…comes from a lack of mutual funds…[but] we made sure that they knew that the financial industry is creating fossil-free funds and that that excuse is no longer valid.”

According to Dolan, the meeting resulted in the formation of a working group in the Provost’s Office that will plan a university symposium on climate change and fossil fuel divestment.

McGough, a junior, also commented on the slated symposium.

“The administration seems willing to cooperate with us on pursuing other avenues to address the climate crisis, whether that be a symposium on different mechanisms for addressing the issue or thinking more about sustainability and endowment funds,” he said.

The symposium may include a debate between people interested in divestment and those who think there are other actions that can be taken, such as the institution of carbon pricing, according to McGough.

“We hope that the symposium, at its best, can provide a means for the university to explain why they haven’t divested yet and be open to the community on this issue,” Jacqz said.

The TCA members said they could not comment on what will happen directly after the meeting but did say they are waiting on Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris before the next meeting will be scheduled.

Jacqz added that the community has expressed a lot of support for divestment, which was another point he and the other TCA members tried to communicate to Dolan and the Board at the meeting.

Previously, Gallagher told the Daily that the campaign to divest from fossil fuels was launched in Fall 2012 by students from TCA, which was then called Tufts Divest For Our Future. A student referendum, a TCU Senate vote, a faculty petition and an alumni petition reported that 74 percent of the student body, 45 faculty members and 200 alumni supported divestment, according to Gallagher and the Tufts Divest website.

Administrators at the meeting brought up steps that Tufts has already taken to reduce the university’s carbon emissions and to address climate change, according to Gallagher.

Gallagher provided the Daily with a document that Campbell gave to TCA members at the meeting. The document states that the university has taken steps toward sustainability with the construction of the New Central Energy Plant on the Medford/Somerville campus, the establishment of a policy for achieving LEEDS certification for their major building projects, collaboration with the MBTA and surrounding communities for the Green Line Extension Project, waste management and recycling initiatives and the installation of two solar panels on the Grafton campus.

McGough and Jacqz said the university has also emphasized its creation of the Tufts Sustainability Fund, approved by the trustees in November 2014 as a place for sustainable investing.

“They created that because they wanted to point us away from divestment,” Jacqz said.

According to Dolan, the university-wide Tufts Divestment Working Group issued a January 2014 report that reviewed prospects of divesting the endowment from fossil fuels.

“Restructuring the endowment to include only managers of fossil-fuel-free funds would cause a meaningful impact on the diversification and risk/return profile of Tufts’ endowment,” the report said.

Dolan said that he and the Board of Trustees continue to stand by that report.

“Tufts trustees continue to be concerned about climate change and we support the university’s continued involvement on this issue,” he told the Daily in an email via Executive Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler. “It is important for us to learn more about leading edge thinking on how best to address this complex challenge and the role that Tufts can play in finding answers.”

Gallagher said she thinks that the steps the university has taken are good, but that more needs to be done.

“Institutions are supposed to be places of truth and leadership,” she said. “Considering the urgency of the climate crisis and that it is a question of justice and human lives…we feel that just doing things kind of internally is not enough … We have the opportunity and the responsibility to implicate the political system in this country, and I think that this is the issue of our time.”

Members of TCA were penalized for their April sit-in, which Gallagher said she and one other student, sophomore Dylan Carlson, are still appealing. According to Gallagher, they have a hearing on Oct. 23 to appeal their disciplinary action, though many other members of TCA have decided not to appeal.

“That’s an example of civil disobedience that I fully admit I’m guilty of, but again it’s because this is the moral issue of our time so the disproportionate punishment that [we] are facing is pretty shameful in my opinion,” she said. “I definitely plan on using this opportunity to educate the Tufts community more about the urgency of action that is required.”

All three TCA members believe that Tufts will eventually divest from fossil fuels.

“It won’t be advantageous financially to hold investments in fossil fuels, so [divestment] will happen eventually,” McGough said.

Jacqz added that the university is making a political statement by staying invested in fossil fuels.

“I think it’s inevitable, whether the Board drags their feet and makes a mess of it [or not],” Jacqz said. “It’s really about whether Tufts wants to be a part of the solution or to ignore the political reality.”