Students protest for divestment outside Aoun’s holiday party


By Glenn Billman, news staff

As Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun hosted a holiday party for Board of Trustees members, donors and other university community members at his Beacon Street home Tuesday, 11 uninvited students from DivestNU demonstrated outside with climate-centric renditions of classic Christmas carols. The protest was the latest DivestNU demonstration in response to Northeastern’s refusal to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful / This climate ain’t delightful / And since Shell made this mess / Let’s divest, let’s divest, let’s divest,” the students sang to the tune of “Let it Snow.”

The protesters gathered at about 5 p.m. on the sidewalk outside Aoun’s home and caroled for two hours, singing rewritten versions of “O Christmas Tree,” “Jingle Bells,” “Let it Snow,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Most of the songs focused on the impact of climate change on the environment, while some featured critical references to Aoun and Northeastern Board of Trustees member Edward G. Galante, who previously served as ExxonMobil’s senior vice president.

“On the first day of school Ed Galante gave Aoun / A boat load of oil money,” DivestNU members sang to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

DivestNU co-founder Austin Williams, a senior environmental studies and political science combined major, said he hoped the demonstration would keep climate change at the forefront of the minds of Senior Leadership Team members.

“We want to make it clear that when it comes to climate change, President Aoun and the Senior Leadership Team of our administration are very clearly on the naughty list,” Williams said. “We think if the university is really committed to climate action, they need to disassociate themselves from climate deniers like Ed Galante, and that’s the message that we’re going to be bringing to the holiday party.”

Northeastern does not currently directly invest in fossil fuels, but a portion of the university’s endowment is invested in commingled funds that include investments in the energy sector.

A few minutes after the students arrived, a man left the party and spoke with a Boston police officer. The officer then approached the students and commended them on protesting peacefully.

“I appreciate you’re out here having a peaceful protest, keep it up,” the officer said. “Let your voices be heard, stay warm.”

After about an hour of protesting, the students were offered cups of hot chocolate from party attendees inside Aoun’s home, which they declined.

“The guests who attended the holiday open house at the president’s residence were happy to see the students’ passion, and the president was glad to offer the students hot chocolate,” Northeastern spokesperson Matthew McDonald said in an email to The News.

After almost two hours, DivestNU members Riale Gilligan, a sophomore chemical engineering and physics major, and Kyle McAdam, a third-year environmental studies and political science combined major, knocked on Aoun’s door to deliver a bag of charcoal, while another DivestNU member filmed the exchange.

“We regret to inform the president that he’s been on the naughty list this year for his investments of our endowment in the fossil fuel industry,” McAdam said.

A woman, who isn’t seen on the cellphone footage, answered the door and can be heard cheerfully thanking the students and wishing them a happy holiday in response. Williams said the woman was Vice President of Student Affairs Madeleine Estabrook. 

The protest drew a variety of reactions, with some passing people staring with confusion, giving thumbs up gestures or taking photos. One man driving by in his car yelled at students, “Go [expletive] kill yourselves,” while a man in another car shouted at the demonstrators to get jobs.

Former U.S. Senator Mo Cowan, who currently serves on Northeastern’s Board of Trustees, was on his way to Aoun’s party when he paused outside to speak with Williams. He complimented the students on their peaceful protest.

“I always appreciate when students are active and involved and standing up for things they care about,” Cowan said. “I was surprised to see them out here tonight, but I was pleased to talk to Austin [Williams] and try to gain an understanding of why they’re here this evening and the things they’re concerned about.”

When asked whether he would vote to divest Northeastern’s endowment from fossil fuels, Cowan said he would leave the decision to Aoun and the Senior Leadership Team.

“For those of us who are part of university leadership, I always encourage us to listen, even if we ultimately don’t agree,” Cowan said. “I have faith in President Aoun and the leadership that he’s listening to students and their concerns and ultimately will make the decision that’s in the best interest of the university at large.”

Ben Tamarin, a sophomore communication studies major who participated in the DivestNU demonstration, said it was everyone’s responsibility to fight against climate change.

“People should care more than they do,” Tamarin said. “It’s important to show that the people who do care care enough to get out there and do something.”

William Keach, an English professor at Brown University, lives near Aoun’s home on Beacon Street and came over to the students after he heard them chanting. He said he is involved with a similar divestment coalition at Brown, and supports the effort of the students.

“I completely support it. That’s why I came up here,” Keach said. “[Divestment is] part of the larger movement to try to get the government and U.S. corporations to think about people’s needs first and the needs of the Earth first and put profits second.”

Williams said he hoped to speak directly with Aoun but didn’t get the opportunity to. Still, he said DivestNU members would continue their fight for fossil fuel divestment when the new Northeastern semester begins in January.

“I do think that there’s a direct benefit to bringing this issue directly to their doorstep and to demonstrate that this issue is not going away,” Williams said. “When they get back from their holiday breaks, they can expect us to be taking this issue forward.”

Photo by Glenn Billman