By Paxtyn Merten and Shaina Richards, news staff
Approximately 20 students in the DivestNU campaign marched from Centennial Common, the site of their nearly two-week occupation, to Churchill Hall on Friday morning and delivered a letter to Provost James C. Bean from Northeastern University faculty in support of fossil fuel divestment.
Around an hour later, Vice President of Student Affairs Madeleine Estabrook called DivestNU co-founder Austin Williams to set up a meeting for Tuesday, Oct. 18 between DivestNU and members of Northeastern’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT), Williams said.
“I wouldn’t attribute [SLT’s] agreement to meet to any single step,” said Williams, a senior environmental studies and political science major. “I think it’s a culmination of a lot of the escalations that this campaign has been undergoing in the past couple weeks. I think in particular it is due to the administration’s desire to bring an end to this escalation.”
The faculty letter, which DivestNU published on its website late Thursday night, was signed by more than 50 faculty members and called on administrators to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies and divest within five years from direct ownership from any funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bond.”
Northeastern University administration, in statement emailed to The News by spokesperson Matthew McDonald, said it recognizes its community is passionate about tackling climate change.
“We have engaged in multiple conversations with the student demonstrators about this issue, we have planned additional conversations,” the statement said. “And we are encouraged about the work we might do together to further the considerable commitment the university has made to sustainability issues.”
After arriving outside Churchill Hall, DivestNU protesters taped a nearly six-foot long list of the faculty members to the left of the building’s entrance, alongside a second paper with signatures of students who demand fossil fuel divestment.
Two DivestNU members, Ben Simonds-Malamud, a sophomore English major, and Nico Oldfield, a third-year political science and communications major, brought the letter inside to the provost’s office.
“It was a bit of an inconsequential step to show a little bit of the power we have,” said Simonds-Malamud. “Overall, I’m feeling good about it. I think we’re close to pushing the university on a lot of issues.”
Simonds-Malamud and Oldfield rolled out another banner with the faculty members’ names onto the floor in front of Bean’s office and left it there. Bean was not in his office at the time, so the two protesters presented the letter to Linda Cook, an administrative assistant, who said, “When [Bean] comes in, I’ll make sure that he looks at it.”
Meanwhile, the DivestNU group outside of the building held signs that read “Over 50 faculty members signed our letter” and handed out flyers with an image of President Joseph E. Aoun photoshopped to look like a clown with “Wanted: Climate Cl-Aoun” printed on it.
The protesters chanted, “Faculty and students agree, make Northeastern fossil free.”
Williams said the letter was primarily written by three faculty members: Matthias Ruth, the director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; Brian Helmuth, a professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; and Daniel Faber, a professor of sociology.
The letter acknowledged that the university has taken several steps toward environmental sustainability, with professors in almost every field researching climate-related issues and campus becoming more “green” with initiatives to reduce waste and save energy.
“Northeastern is a recognized leader in this area, both in scholarship and in how we operate our campuses,” the university said in a statement. “We appreciate that the open letter from faculty, while encouraging additional action from the university, recognized that Northeastern is ‘already demonstrating leadership in both the academic study and mitigation of climate change.’”
Still, faculty wrote in the letter that the school had a “moral obligation” to pull its endowment from fossil fuels.
“We believe it is wrong to use our endowment to commission the destruction of a hospitable climate for our students, families, alumni and ourselves,” the letter read. “In short, it is inappropriate for Northeastern University to pursue an investment strategy that is contributing to an unlivable planet for its graduates.”
While Northeastern does not currently invest directly in fossil fuels, it keeps investments in commingled funds — predetermined portfolios that invest money in different areas, including the energy sector, The News reported last week.
“Northeastern prides itself on a ‘real-world’ attitude and on a commitment to taking action on serious problems,” Stephen Nathanson, an emeritus professor of philosophy who signed the letter, said in a DivestNU press release. “The university should take this to heart and divest from the fossil fuel industry.”
Shortly after protesters left Churchill, two Northeastern University Police Department officers removed the signs that DivestNU had hung at the entrance.
Rial Gilligan, a sophomore chemical engineering and physics major, said he has slept in a tent every night on Centennial since DivestNU first set up camp on Monday, Oct. 3.
“If we don’t divest, it means that Northeastern still has a conflict of interest whenever we do climate research,” said Gilligan, who also marched with protesters to Churchill. “It means that we are financially involved, and it means that we are telling the financial market that we still think that they are a good investment.”
In anticipation of the Tuesday meeting with SLT, Williams said he didn’t think there was “too much space” between what DivestNU wants and what administration would be willing to do. DivestNU had requested to meet directly with SLT at its meeting with members of the administration and Student Government Association on Thursday evening, a day prior to the Churchill protest.
“The real question is whether or not [SLT is] willing to accept that climate action requires a conversation about the role that the fossil fuel industry plays in obstructing solutions and driving climate injustice,” Williams said.
Photo by Lauren Scornavacca