Thirty years ago Vassar students blockaded Main Gate, sitting in to protest the college’s refusal to divest from South Africa during Apartheid. Eventually, after a long campaign and extensive escalation, they won divestment. While Apartheid and fossil fuels are two very different problems, they are both issues of social justice and human rights. Now, the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign is sitting in outside of President Hill’s office starting on Monday, April 25th. We intend to continue escalating until our demands are met. We are addressing our demands to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, as they have the power to make decisions in between regularly scheduled board meetings, as well recommend revisions to the Governance of the College.
We have three demands: First, we demand divestment from direct holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies as outlined by our most recent proposal which we submitted last fall.
Second, we demand equal representation on the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), which was formed during the divestment from South Africa movement in order to decide on issues of overriding social concern relating to investments. The CIRC is nominally composed of two faculty, student, alumnae/i, and administrators each. Currently, the CIRC has four administrators, as some are serving in their capacity as alumni or faculty. The overrepresentation of administrators is unfair and overpowers the voices of the underrepresented parties. Students’ voices are particularly susceptible to being overwhelmed, as the power dynamic is already stacked against them, and administrators’ “expertise” are leveraged against them. Both student representatives voted in favour of our most recent divestment proposal, but the committee as a whole voted us down by one vote. We believe that our proposal would have passed if not for the overrepresentation of administrators on the committee.
Our third demand is that a new Restructuring Committee be formed. This committee will be charged with examining the college’s rules of governance, as well as the Board of Trustees. It will suggest amendments to the governance to give the Vassar community more voice and power in college affairs. The committee will be equally composed of students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and administrators. We demand that the committee further address restructuring the CIRC and the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC), possibly merging them together to put the Vassar community’s representatives on equal footing with the trustees. This Restructuring Committee must receive and consider any proposals that individuals or Vassar organizations put forward. This body must be formed by the end of the fall 2016 semester, have developed an action plan by the end of the spring 2017 semester, and begin implementation of said plan by the fall 2017 semester.
Why are we interested in restructuring? In part, we have realized that the divestment process is too slow while the structure of the board remains as it is. They run us around in circles and our proposal gets stuck in committees. They refuse to let us present to the full board for a vote, pointing to the rules of governance and saying that such decisions fall under the jurisdiction of committees—committees which are rigged against us. If any sort of divestment campaign wants a chance at winning, it must turn some of its energies towards mending this broken structure.
The Restructuring Committee might consider granting the student body veto power, or to nominate candidates to the Board. It might mandate full disclosure of the Board’s meeting agendas to the student body, or give the VSA President, currently an observing member, a vote. We cannot presume to speak for the entire Vassar community. It will be the responsibility of the elected Restructuring Committee to properly address its concerns.
Students currently have little space in deciding the direction of the college, so we are symbolically claiming space at the heart of our administration by physically occupying Main Building’s hallways. As it stands, the Board of Trustees claims to act in the best interests of the Vassar community, but fails to properly represent it and reflect its concerns. The Board members are overwhelmingly white, upper class, middle aged or older, and have sat in the boardroom for so long that they have lost touch with the front lines. Their priorities are disconnected from those of the students, whom they supposedly serve. We deserve better than to be subject to the whims of people playing power and networking games. We deserve to have a say in our education and our institution.
The Board’s recent threat to defund the Vassar Student Association during its votes on the Boycott Divest and Sanction movement shows that it does not respect us as adults who can speak and make decisions as a student body. The illusion of the VSA as an autonomous body reflecting students’ concerns was shattered once we approached the invisible limits set by the trustees, beyond which we apparently cannot be trusted with managing our own affairs and necessitates their intervention.
We refuse to be patronized and threatened. No matter what students’ opinions are on BDS, we can all agree that it was manipulative and undignified for the trustees to issue such a threat. We cannot forget that we are the school. We are why they are here. We are who they serve. This action hopes to be the first step leading to a larger student movement demanding meaningful power for students in deciding the College’s direction. We see a potentially bright future for activism fighting for transparency and accountability of the administration to the Vassar community.
We are sitting outside Cappy’s office because we are calling on her to stand with us. She sits on both the Executive Committee and the TIRC. While she cannot make decisions unilaterally, her endorsement will have significant influence over discussions within these committees. As president of the college, she should stand for the best interests of the student body and reflect our voice. The student body is overwhelmingly in favor of divestment, as shown by a 91% yes vote on the student referendum. This was after the divestment resolution passed unanimously through the VSA. We call on Cappy to properly advocate the will of the students to the trustees.
Climate change and environmental degradation are direct results of the actions of the fossil fuel industry. Climate justice is an issue of social justice. The fossil fuel industry is a threat to lives and communities around the world. It is unacceptable for Vassar to continue to drag its feet when divestment is a clear opportunity to act on this problem. The administration and trustees have admitted that we only have 0-1 direct investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies in any given year, and thus that divestment will have basically no impact on college finances. They oppose divestment under the misguided belief that the college can remain ‘neutral’, failing to realize that the choice to fund our institution with money made from fossil fuel exploitation was made long ago.
We say it is time for Vassar to live up to the leadership it claims to embody, instead of following down the beaten path after it has been made safe. We say it is time for it to live up to what it claims to teach its students, to act on social justice, to target systemic change.
We want to take some time to address issues of privilege, as privilege dynamics in activism should never be ignored. We are not advocates of climate supremacy. That is, we do not think that this issue is by any means the most intersectional or the most important. We think that it is one of many systematic injustices that must be addressed. We are taking action on this issue because it is the one for which we possess the knowledge, positionality, and ability to tackle most effectively, not because we think it deserves more attention than anything else. In fact we hope that this action will be an opportunity to build coalitions with other activist organizations, so that we can work together and support each other in the future.
We also do not think that we deserve to pat ourselves on the back for this action. We are escalating to this degree not for fun, and not to be the center of attention, but because this is an urgent issue that affects everyone, especially the most marginalized communities globally. We have no choice; we have tried numerous channels and all have been blocked. At a certain point in the progression of a campaign, direct action on this scale simply becomes necessary.
We do think that it’s necessary for us to acknowledge our own privilege in this action. Our organization, just like the US environmental movement at large, is predominantly white. We continue to reflect on this fact. We acknowledge that such a tendency is very problematic, and therefore that any elements of our action that stem from this dynamic are problematic as well. We welcome any input that people may have, and we are working on ways to broaden our campaign. We want to create as safe a space as we can and we are engaging in this campaign to fight social injustices, so we appreciate any criticism offered that will help prevent us from perpetuating them. At the same time we recognize that it is no one’s responsibility to teach us but our own.
We realize that there is a certain amount of risk involved in this action. It is important to note that the risk we face here is minimal compared to that posed to vulnerable populations by climate change. However, taking on this risk is still a privilege. We think that our position of privilege, even as students at this college, obliges us to take action in order to prevent the our institution from contributing to the perpetuation of injustice. We anticipate that we might have interactions with security and possibly even the police. We know that these forces react very differently to different bodies. Many of us have an identity that allows us to assume that we will be safe in these encounters, which is a huge privilege. Furthermore, direct action and arrest are privileges. We recognize that we cannot assume to speak for the people who are directly affected—most of whom are people of color—but we must do all we can to combat the oppression that is being perpetrated by other privileged populations. We are lucky enough to be granted some power by the system. We aim to leverage that power productively and try our best to create a world that is a little more just than it was before we took action.