[UPDATED] Divestment student group occupies Centennial Common


UPDATED at 11:55 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 5 

DivestNU held a teach-in about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at 5:30 p.m. in conjunction with a Northeastern professor and members from No TPP Boston, a group opposed to the trade deal. This is DivestNU’s third day camping on Centennial Common.

The event began with a 10-minute speech about the TPP by Daniel Faber, a professor of sociology and director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, which is a free trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries. About 40 students, sitting in a circle on the ground, then engaged in a discussion about the trade agreement with Faber and members of No TPP Boston.

Speakers at the event seemed optimistic that the TPP was falling out of favor with both politicians and the general public.

“In American politics, it’s moving so that there are consequences for voting for the TPP on the left and the right,” Faber said.

However, an August Morning Consult poll revealed that 35 percent of respondents supported or strongly supported the TPP, while 22 percent opposed and 43 percent didn’t know or had no opinion. Support was up and opposition was down from a March poll.

Earlier in the day, around 2:30 p.m., the Northeastern University Police Department (NUPD) confronted DivestNU members who were chalking near Shillman Hall to promote the TPP teach-in.

Ben Simonds-Malamud, a sophomore English major and DivestNU member, said that NUPD officers told him to erase a partially-censored sexual expletive that he wrote in chalk to denounce the partnership.

“This was the first time [NUPD] told us to stop doing something,” Simonds-Malamud said. “I just kept trying to say, ‘I really don’t mean any disrespect, but if there’s not a policy that we’re directly breaking, I’m not going to erase this.’”

According to Simonds-Malamud, the officers told him that writing sexual epithets on campus is a Title IX violation. Simonds-Malamud then left a message for NU’s Office of Gender Equity and Compliance, seeking the office’s interpretation of the situation. NUPD left without requiring that DivestNU remove the chalking.

Simonds-Malamud said he believed it was a stretch to call the chalking a Title IX offense.

According to the Northeastern Policy on Sexual Harassment, “sexual epithets, jokes, written or oral references to sexual conduct” are listed as items that constitute sexual harassment.

According to Northeastern’s Student Organization Resource guide, “Chalking may only be done by recognized student organizations and University departments that are sponsoring an approved activity and/or program.”

DivestNU is a recognized Northeastern University student organization. The group’s occupation event this week is not a university-approved activity.

UPDATED at 11:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4

By Julia Preszler, news correspondent

DivestNU members held their second rally at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday. The night included student speakers from many of DivestNU’s coalition partners at Northeastern University (NU), along with students from groups at Boston University (BU) and Boston College (BC) who are pushing their universities to divest from fossil fuels.

Members from Northeastern’s Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) led a chant.

“Hey, Northeastern, clean up your mess. We’ll be here till you divest. Hey, Divest, roll up your sleeves. We’ll be here till they make us leave,” students chanted.

DivestNU coalition partners at the rally included the PSA, Students Against Institutional Discrimination, Students for Justice in Palestine and the NU Buddhists.

Joan Hwang, a 2015 philosophy graduate of BC and member of Climate Justice at Boston College, also spoke at the rally.

“We have a responsibility as students at elite universities to be sure our endowments aren’t being used for death,” she said.

After the rally, Hwang said she was happy to see that the DivestNU’s occupation of Centennial Common was taking place.

“It’s extremely heartening and invigorating the way that this escalated action is happening,” she said.

Mike Baker, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences at BU, said his university has taken steps to respond to students’ calls for divestment, but he does not believe these actions have been sufficient.

“Our divest group and other environmentalist groups on campus managed to get the Board of Trustees to form a committee called the ACSRI (Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing),” Baker said. “Our ACSRI made recommendations that BU’s Board of Trustees divest from tar and coal sands, fossil fuels, create a climate action plan and continue to emphasize sustainability on campus. [It’s] a very non-committal response. We’re not very pleased with the response they gave us.”

Members of DivestNU think the Northeastern administration should do more to support sustainability, since the university claims to be an environmentally-friendly institution.

“If NU wants to align with the image it likes to portray, it should divest,” sophomore politics, philosophy and economics major and DivestNU organizer James DeCunzo said.

Participants ended the protest with enthusiasm, jumping and clapping as they chanted, “I believe that we will win.”

UPDATED at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4

Wednesday evening will see West Wing Night, an event hosted by Northeastern Votes during which students will watch the first two episodes of the show “The West Wing” on Centennial Common, register to vote and eat free wings and popcorn. Due to DivestNU’s indefinite occupation of Centennial Common, questions were raised as to whether the event would be held.

“The organizers of the DivestNU sit-in have offered to temporarily move their tents from the center of Centennial to the edges of the quad so that students may enjoy an unobstructed view of the screen for the duration of the event,” Elliot Horen, the president of SGA, one of the groups involved in the Northeastern Votes coalition, said in a statement. “They will move the tents back to the center of Centennial after the event’s conclusion.”

UPDATED at 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4

The university has responded to The News’ inquiry about the conversation between Associate Dean Robert Jose and members of DivestNU, saying that “a visit was not promised to the protesters.”

“We believe the protesters have misrepresented this morning’s conversation with the associate dean,” said Matt McDonald, a spokesperson for Northeastern, in an email to The News. “The associate dean met with protesters not about their protest, but rather about other student organizations’ requests to use the space—requests made following established university protocols. The associate dean suggested that the protesters vacate the common by noon to allow other students to use the space for their scheduled programs.”

UPDATED at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4

By Rachel Morford, news editor

Members of DivestNU expected to have a meeting with administration officials this afternoon, but were ultimately disappointed.

On day two of their indefinite camp-out on Centennial Common, members of the group said they received a message that they would receive a visit from members of Northeastern University’s administration. They gathered for the meeting but waited for hours in vain.

Robert Jose, Northeastern’s associate dean of Cultural, Residential and Spiritual Life, came to Centennial this morning to notify DivestNU that a visit from NU administration was to occur later that day, said DivestNU co-director Austin Williams,

Upon receiving word of the meeting with administration, DivestNU reached out to members of partner clubs for solidarity. At noon, Austin Williams, one of DivestNU’s leaders, gathered the students to brief them on what Jose said.

“[Jose] let us know the administration is going to meet with us around noon to discuss what we’re doing here and what it’s going to take for us to leave,” said Williams to the assembled crowd.

Williams, a senior environmental studies and political science student, said the university had issued an official warning about the group’s use of Centennial Common.

“[The administration sent an] official warning that any events scheduled on Centennial [are] pretense for them to remove us,” said Williams.

By 12:30 p.m., the administration had not arrived. Tyler Hall, senior mechanical engineering student and DivestNU’s director of media, spoke about the disappointment.

“It’s kind of disappointing, because we had all the student support out here at noon,” said Hall. “Maybe they’re even deliberately late, to catch us off guard.”

Tomorrow night, the Student Government Association is scheduled to host a screening of The West Wing on Centennial as part of the Northeastern Votes initiative. Williams said this is likely the event administration referenced in their warning.

“Personally, I think it be fantastic if folks joined our sit-in,” Williams said to the group, provoking laughter. “But you know, we’re going to leave that one up to Elliot Horen and everyone in student government for whether or not they’d want DivestNU to co-sponsor.”

At 1 p.m., most of the originally-gathered students had departed from DivestNU’s camp. As of 4 p.m., the administration has not issued any response to the missed meeting.

Updates will follow.

UPDATE by Ryan Grewal, news correspondent

On Monday night, DivestNU and a diverse coalition of supporting clubs held a rally promoting their campaign to end Northeastern University (NU)’s investment in the fossil fuel industry.

Over a hundred supporters and onlookers gathered around the group’s camp of tents on Centennial Common, which the group has said they will occupy until the university either meets their demands or forcibly removes them.

Austin Williams, a leader of DivestNU and senior environmental studies and political science major, spoke of his frustration with the administration’s lack of response to the group’s concerns.

“[Dean of Student Affairs, Madeleine Estabrook] said that university administrations move at a glacial pace,” Williams said to the charged audience. “I don’t think she got the irony.”

Leaders of some of the 26 clubs in the coalition supporting DivestNU also addressed the rally. Savannah Kinzer of the Husky Environmental Action Team led the crowd in a parody renditions of songs lambasting the university, including “They’ve Been Fracking North Dakota” sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

Many of those in attendance were not affiliated with the organization, but supported its goals. Tony Gao, a sophomore environmental science major, seemed hopeful for the future of the movement.

“I think it is a step on the right direction. I think they will raise a lot of awareness through this,” Gao said.

Others looking on seemed less enthusiastic about the cause. Freshman computer science major Noah Tagliaferri felt that the occupation and rally were too dramatic and somewhat hypocritical.

“These tents are fossil fuels,” Tagliaferri said, gesturing at the synthetic fiber tents of the occupying protesters. “Hair gel is fossil fuels, clothes are fossil fuels.”

DivestNU invited members of divestment-focused groups from other Boston-area universities to another rally, which will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m.

By Julia Preszler, news correspondent, originally published at 11 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 3

Updated at 6:30 p.m. to include comment from the university.

Members of DivestNU, a student-led campaign working to persuade Northeastern to end all investment in the fossil fuel industry, began pitching tents on Centennial Common at 7:45 this morning.

“We’re out here in solidarity of millions of people around the world who are already feeling the impacts of climate change,” Tyler Hall, senior mechanical engineering major, said.

The students said they are planning to camp on Centennial Common until university officials agree to move toward divesting from the fossil fuels industry.

“We want to see a response, a tangible response, from the administration that demonstrates to us that they really understand and appreciate how important an issue this is to the student body,” Hall said. “I can say with certainty if they agreed to divest today, we would be gone. Anything less than that we would have to think about as a group.”

In a statement emailed to the News at 5:05 p.m. by spokesperson Matthew McDonald, the university said DivestNU’s action was a positive reflection of student engagement around serious issues.

“A passionate and engaged student body is one of the hallmarks of a great university,” the statement said. “We encourage a spirited exchange of ideas on our campus, and we commend these students for their continued passion to address the challenge of global climate change.”

About an hour after protesters began setting up their tents, a member of Northeastern University Police Department (NUPD) started talking to some of the demonstrators.

“[The officers] wanted to be a liaison between us and the administration,” Hall said. “They asked me personally what it would take for us to end our action here.”

The police did not ask the demonstrators to leave Centennial.

“For the time being, they are just here to make sure we are safe and protected being in this space,” Hall said. “So far, it’s a pretty beneficial interaction.”

At 9 a.m., NUPD began to collect the demonstrators’ IDs. They recorded the students’ names before returning the IDs to the students.

In a 2014 referendum, 75 percent of participating students voted in favor of divestment, Hall said.

Currently, the university holds no direct investments in the fossil fuel industry. Many of the school’s investments are in commingled funds, which include investments across several companies and industries. Some of those holdings include energy companies and other members of fossil fuel sector.

In July, the university announced it was investing $25 million in sustainable and clean energy investments over the next five years. Officials framed the decision as a deliberate alternative to divestment.

Northeastern’s statement to The News highlighted these and other steps already taken by university officials to to address divestment concerns:

“Over the past decade, Northeastern has made aggressive and impactful efforts to advance sustainability. In recent years, those efforts have been supported by the work of students, faculty, and staff on the university’s Social Impact Council and Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group. This past summer, the university publicly announced that it will direct $25 million of its endowment to investments with a focus on sustainability, including clean energy, renewables, green building, and sustainable water and agriculture.”

Members of DivestNU said Monday that they were not satisfied with that decision, echoing comments made in July.

“Over the summer, in a pretty secretive way, the university announced that it would not be divesting from fossil fuels, that it thought divesting was a retreat from global challenges,” said Alissa Zimmer, a junior environmental studies and political science major.

Zimmer expressed concern that Edward Galante, a former vice president of Exxon Mobil sits on the Board of Trustees.

“In the past, Northeastern has lied about Northeastern having ties to Exxon Mobil, while Galante sits on the board, so we just think the administration has just overall been disingenuous in terms of engagement,” Zimmer said. “We want to give them an opportunity to work with us, once again. This is our opportunity and that’s why there are students out here.”

According to the DivestNU website, 26 Northeastern organizations are officially part of the DivestNU coalition and 40 students are currently occupying Centennial. They will hold a rally at Centennial at 6 p.m. tonight. The group expects that hundreds of students will come to Centennial to support their cause over the course of their demonstration.

“We’re here to reaffirm the student body’s call for fossil fuel divestment,” said Austin Williams,  senior environmental studies and political science major and one of DivestNU’s leaders. “We’re here to say that the student body is not accepting ‘no’ as an answer, and we’re going to be here until the university is ready to take steps to live out the students’ values as part of our institutional direction.”

At 6 p.m., a rally of support, organized by DivestNU, kicked off at Centennial. The News will continue to cover breaking developments.

Rachel Morford and Jenna Ciccotelli contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Robert Jose as Bob Jose.

Photo by Scotty Schenck