By Lucas Moctezuma, news correspondent

Hundreds gathered in Cabot Gymnasium Thursday for Northeastern’s State of the University address, where President Joseph E. Aoun’s speech was interrupted by student demonstrators criticizing the university for its refusal to divest from fossil fuels and its connection to ExxonMobil.

“Today, you will tell us that Northeastern is a leader is sustainability, while you continue funding climate change and defend your ties to ExxonMobil,” DivestNU members chanted to Aoun. “This is the real State of the University. Will you stand with students or the fossil fuel industry?”

Current and prospective students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the community quickly filled Solomon Court at noon in anticipation of the address. The State of the University is an annual event where Aoun and other administration members praise Northeastern’s past accomplishments and announce its plans for the future.

The theme of this year’s address was Northeastern 2025, the university’s new academic plan to expand global opportunities and promote lifelong learning, which was announced in late September.

“The State of the University gathering is an opportunity for us to come together as a community to reflect on and to celebrate where we are as an institution,” said Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement. “More importantly, it’s a chance for us to look at our future.”

MacGillivray praised the ambitions and individual accomplishments of students, who she said establish the foundation for Northeastern’s success. It is the entrepreneurial spirit of these students, she said, that makes Northeastern a community of “tireless doers” and “relentless innovators.”

For the university addresses in 2014 and 2015, the president of the Student Government Association (SGA) was invited to speak. This year, no one from student government received an invitation, said SGA president Elliot Horen. Horen, a junior information science and business administration major, declined to comment further.

SGA Senator Vishal Makhijani, who represents the student South Asian organization UTSAV, said student government being excluded from the event mirrored administration’s treatment of DivestNU.

“The fact that SGA lost their spot at the State of the University furthers the dismissal of student voices that is in line with how they’re responding to Divest,” said Makhijani, a third-year finance and political science major.

Provost James C. Bean later took the stage to outline the new academic plan, the development of which involved consultation with industry partners, co-op partners, faculty and alumni, he said. Over the past few years, Bean said, Northeastern students have embraced innovation in many different ways, ranging from launching student startups with the university’s venture accelerator IDEA to students creating new products in the “maker spaces” in Snell Library.

But not everybody was inspired.

The tone of the event took a dramatic turn as Aoun went onstage to present his speech. Two members of DivestNU, Nebai Hernandez and James DeCunzo, immediately stood in front of the stage, blocking Aoun, and silently held signs that read, “NEU invests $60 million in fossil fuels” and “Fight for us, not fossil fuels.” The two students were escorted to the side of the gymnasium, but were not removed from the event.

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DivestNU member James DeCunzo was escorted to the side of Cabot Gymnasium after standing up in protest at the start of President Joseph E. Aoun’s speech.

 

Soon after, DivestNU members stood up in clusters throughout the audience holding up signs with similar messages. Led by students Haley Havens and Gaby Thurston, the protesters then began chanting for about two minutes, claiming the university ignores student voices and remains committed to investing in fossil fuels.

“President Aoun, two years ago at this event, after students voted for fossil fuel divestment, you created a Social Impact Council,” the group shouted, referring to the 75 percent of responding students who voted in favor of divestment in a 2014 SGA referendum. “This spring, the council recommended full divestment. In July, your administration rejected their call. Today, the Social Impact Council is dead, student voices are ignored and you’ve closed the conversation on divestment.”

The crowd looked around in disbelief and curiosity. Aoun stood silently facing the protestors and smiling.

After the demonstration was finished, Aoun thanked the students and asked for a round of applause from the audience.

“I love your passion. I respect your freedom of speech. We are all about academic freedom,” Aoun said, adding, “I think that’s enough. Your voice was heard. Let us continue with the program.”

DivestNU co-founder Austin Williams said the demonstration was a significant escalation of the group’s campaign.

“I think really why this tactic was chosen was because of its visibility and to really assert the student voices and say this is the real State of the University,” Williams, a senior environmental studies and political science major, said after the event. “This is what President Aoun and his Senior Leadership Team are not going to be discussing today. They made it very clear to us in our discussion that they were not interested in engaging in a critique of the fossil fuel industry.”

After asking for no more disruptions, Aoun transitioned into his speech, talking about the recent creation of the Northeastern Professional Advancement Network, which would see further integration of a global network of graduate campuses, and the new science and engineering complex that is currently being built on Columbus Avenue.

Protesters stood silently, holding signs, until the end of Aoun’s speech.

After the State of the University concluded, the student protesters marched outside past police officers and administration members while chanting, “Hey Northeastern! Practice what you preach! Climate justice and free speech!”

DivestNU members said they were not satisfied by Aoun’s response to their protest.  

“I would have liked [Aoun] to say he was going to divest, or at least say it was a problem that will be addressed,” said Zuzu Oomen-Lochtefeld, a freshman majoring in international affairs. “But he didn’t give it any attention […] and just asked us to stop protesting.”

Williams called Aoun’s reaction a political move to avoid further escalating the issue.

“I would say it’s nice that President Aoun admires our passion, but that admiration isn’t enough,” Williams said. “Our community wants to see real, substantial action from Aoun, and we want to see him confront his role with the fossil fuel industry and address how he legitimizes the conduct of companies like ExxonMobil.”

In addition to the issue of fossil fuel divestment, DivestNU members are critical of Northeastern’s ties to oil company ExxonMobil. Edward Galante, a member of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees, served as senior vice president of the company during a Department of Justice investigation into its alleged misleading of the public regarding the detrimental impacts of climate change.

“We don’t think that this conflict of interest is minor,” Williams said. “We think it’s really central to the broad issue we raised which is how academic institutions in the U.S. legitimize the fossil fuel industry and refuse to criticize the model because they have investments ties in the industry.”

A Northeastern spokesperson did not return a request for comment before press time.

Bean said at the event that the administration plans to interact with the Northeastern community in the next six weeks to address the university’s future. Town Hall meetings have been arranged at Raytheon Amphitheater on Oct. 26 at 12 p.m. and the Alumni Center on Nov. 17 at 12 p.m.

Olivia Arnold contributed to this report.

Photo by Scotty Schenck