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The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

‘They have to stop making the poison’: DivestNU rallies against Northeastern’s investments in fossil fuels

Erin Fine
Protestors holding signs in support of the DivestNU campaign cross Forsyth Street. DivestNU’s demands included complete divestment from fossil fuels, no new investments and transparency throughout that process.

On the heels of Family & Friends weekend Sunday, Oct. 15, more than three dozen members and supporters of DivestNU gathered on Centennial Common to pressure Northeastern’s administration to divest from fossil fuels, a continuation of a decade-long effort to get the school to commit to divestment. 

More than 100 colleges and universities in the United States — including nearby schools like Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts foundation, Wellesley College and Boston University — have divested from fossil fuels, according to a BestColleges report from September 2023. For years, Northeastern has lagged behind local schools in divesting. 

DivestNU activists estimated in 2016 that the university had invested $65 million in fossil fuels. A 2016 report from Northeastern’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group, part of the university’s Social Impact Council, noted a conversation between DivestNU and Thomas Nedell, then-senior vice president for finance and treasurer, who had told students “the endowment’s broad exposure to the energy industry (not exclusively fossil fuel companies) is 9%” of its $743 million endowment.

According to a spokesperson for the university, members of DivestNU will meet with senior administrators Nov. 1 to further discuss divestment. The university declined to comment on the issue before the meeting.

Several parents who were on campus during Northeastern’s Family & Friends weekend stopped as they wandered through Centennial Sunday evening to peer at handwritten signs and snap pictures of protestors, who faced the towering “125” structure the school erected to celebrate its quasquicentennial Founder’s Day

“When we position ourselves against neighboring schools … it’s clear that Northeastern lags in making a decisive stance against the fossil fuel industry,” said Charlie Zhang, Northeastern’s student body president and a fourth-year sociology and international business combined major, in his remarks at the rally. “This isn’t the narrative we want for our institution.”

Student Body President Charlie Zhang speaks in front of protestors. Zhang’s remarks spoke to the desire among students for Northeastern to halt investments in fossil fuels. (Erin Fine)

At Sunday’s protest, DivestNU’s demands from the university included complete divestment from fossil fuels, no new investments in fossil fuels and transparency in the process of pulling investments. 

“Fossil fuel investments are immoral, period,” said Jonathan Bacdayan, a fourth-year environmental studies major and organizer with DivestNU. “Any attempt by the university to keep their investments is a sign of disrespect for the planet and its student body.”

The divest campaign started at Northeastern in 2013 and remained active in their protesting through 2017, according to Bacdayan. Its peak of activity was in 2016 after a 13-day occupation of Centennial Common, he said. 

In response to mounting pressure from DivestNU in 2016, Northeastern invested $25 million of its endowment in environmental sustainability. Nedell, now Northeastern’s now-Chief Financial Officer, said at the time that the school had “deliberately chosen to invest, not divest.” But speakers at the rally said that was not enough.

“In the past, Northeastern has tried to pacify students by investing money in sustainability initiatives, but that won’t cut it,” Harley Takagi Kaner, an organizer with Extinction Rebellion Boston, a climate justice organization that practices civil disobedience, said at the protest. “That is not climate justice. They can’t actively poison the community and say, ‘Well, we’re also investing in antidotes.’ They have to stop making the poison.”

In April 2021, the faculty senate voted 22-1-1 for a resolution calling on the university to divest from fossil fuels within two years. But two years later, faculty say the university has not taken adequate action.

“That ask from the faculty has not been considered,” said rally attendee and professor of sustainability science and policy Jennie Stephens. “It’s time for our universities to step up and acknowledge the contributions that we have made [to climate change] as institutions.”

DivestNU is not an official student organization, but rather a coalition of Sunrise; Husky Environmental Action Club, or HEAT; and the Progressive Student Alliance, said Vice President of Organizational Outreach of HEAT Anne-Claire Mousseau, a fourth-year psychology major. In February 2022, Mousseau and Vice President of HEAT Incubators, Kate Clemenz, a fourth-year human services major, restarted the divestment campaign in conjunction with HEAT. 

Protestors stand in Krentzman Quadrangle by a sign advertising Family & Friends Weekend. The protest coincided with Family & Friends Weekend. (Erin Fine)

Sunrise Northeastern soon joined HEAT members in relaunching the divest campaign. The group introduced a Student Government Association, or SGA, referendum and got it on the school-wide election ballot last spring, where 6,483 of 7,085 total votes, or 91.5%, of students voted in favor of the university “halting its fossil fuel investments, removing all fossil fuel holdings over the next two years, and maintaining transparency into this process.”

“Northeastern claims that one of its core values is collaboration,” Takagi Kaner said. “But how is Northeastern collaborating with its students if a student referendum that passes with 92% support has no impact on the university’s decisions?”

Although the university did not respond to the results, said Sunrise Northeastern Co-hub Coordinator Lucas Good, a third-year environmental studies major, the campaign is pushing forward. This semester, the group is focusing on its “public appearance” to get students aware and involved in the campaign, using last semesters’ SGA results as a center point in the advocacy, Good said.

“Now, what we’ve been up to is kind of hammering [the SGA vote] home and trying to force a response out of the administration because the administration does not want to acknowledge things that it does not want to do,” Bacdayan said. “[Northeastern’s] playbook is to slow down, distract, delay, diffuse.”

To draw attention, DivestNU member and Sunrise Co-hub Coordinator Cassidy Chang, a fourth-year environmental studies major, says the group has been “taunting” the school by writing “chaotic” Instagram captions and chalking “Divest Now” around campus. Recently, on Founders’ Day, “Divest” was written in many places around campus amid the celebrations.

Although the group constantly admonishes the administration’s actions, Chang said one of the reasons she supports DivestNU is because she believes in the group’s collective power to convince the university to change its ways. 

“I’m graduating this year, and I don’t want to leave Northeastern in a place where I haven’t made a positive impact on the school,” Chang said. “I love this school, and I am very proud to be a Northeastern student, and I also know that it has the capacity to change, and I want to change it if I can.”

About the Contributors
Sonel Cutler, Campus Editor
Sonel Cutler is a third-year journalism and political science combined major and campus editor of The News. She has previously served as deputy campus editor and is excited to continue bringing thoughtful and thorough coverage of campus life to Northeastern students. Sonel was most recently on co-op with the Boston Globe's Metro desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @cutler_sonel.
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