NYU Divest Hosts Eco-Celebrity Bill McKibben, Faces Rebuff From Administration


Underneath the cavernous arches of Cooper Union’s Great Hall last night, 550 plush red seats were filled with 550 people, all eyes fixed on a gold-tasseled podium behind which a tall, graying man stood. Between massive white pillars, the audience looked up at a stage once graced by Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt –- a stage whose inauguration speech was given by Mark Twain himself.

The speaker, environmental activist, author, and journalist Bill McKibben, started out the night by describing himself as a “professional bummer-out-er,” because of his dire climate change predictions. But by the end of the night, the crowd was so animated and vivacious, you’d never think they’d been discussing the end of the world as we know it for the past two hours — especially in the aftermath of a weather event that only solidified McKibben’s ominous forecast.

“During Sandy, to watch the water pour in…was to understand the fragility of our civilization in a new way,” he said to an audience of students, activists, and organizations. ”The boundaries that we had set up, that we though were permanent — they were not.”

McKibben, who has been described by Time as “the world’s best green journalist,” represented his grassroots climate organization 350.org, a movement geared at raising awareness of man-made climate change through international community organizing and activism. But for NYU and other schools in New York City, the night took on a special meeting – as McKibben discussed the importance of university divestment in fossil fuel company holdings, NYU Divest, a student and faculty-led group, was pinpointed as a growing force in the crusade. 

“NYU would be a perfect place for this to happen,” McKibben told NYULocal. “It’s a progressive institution, and it was near ground zero for Hurricane Sandy — the Atlantic was pouring into the subway system nearby, and the lights were off. If anyone understands why we need to change course, you’d think it would be NYU.”

The Divest campaign, backed by 350.org, has now spread to 234 campuses across the country, three administrations of which have pledged to divest thus far. The movement urges them demand shareholder divestment from large, environmentally harmful companies. 350.org refers to climate scientists’ call to reduce carbon emissions globally and bring the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million as a safe upper limit to avoid irreversible effects induced by climate change. University divestment in fossil fuel has been billed as a large part of this effort.

“Basically we’re asking NYU to divest from any funds in the top two hundred fossil fuel companies, including commingled funds within the next five years, and to not invest in any new ones,” said Dr. Julianne Warren, an ecologist and professor in both Liberal Studies and Environmental Studies, who has spearheaded NYU’s campaign along with a dedicated group of student organizers. Warren’s legion, which formed last semester and has been growing since, is also asking the administration to form a committee to make re-investment decisions that line up with renewable energy and an environmental justice agenda.

Warren and McKibben also cited the spirit of the Occupy movement and a rejection of governmental shortcomings as a motivation for the movement.

“Big oil is the biggest player in DC,” McKibben told NYULocal. “[It’s] the poster child for the one percent.”

John Beckman, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, told NYULocal on Monday that the university does not does not currently have plans to divest energy related stocks, and said that he does not have specific information on NYU’s current energy sector investments:

Our stance on this proposal is the same as our stance on other politically-driven proposals that relate to the endowment; that it is both unwise and difficult to use the endowment as a vehicle of political expression.  Unwise because the principal purpose of the endowment is to serve the University’s teaching and research mission over the long term and so it should be invested to maximize returns for the University, and difficult because in a campus as diverse as ours, there is likely to be a wide range of views on any given issue and it is challenging to determine how to honor any one single point of view.

Beckman cited the University Senate as the body that could consider a proposal like divestment and provide guidance to the administration and trustees about it, as “in the past with regard to South Africa and apartheid, for instance.”

Ironically, the Divest campaign often alludes to that very movement; divestment by major U.S. universities and other organizations in South Africa’s economy in the 1980’s was one of the driving forces in dismantling that country’s system of racial segregation.

Last semester, NYULocal interviewed journalist and author Christian Parenti, who argues that while the divestment ‘tactic’ is a good tool for motivating large masses of people, it is ineffective as a strategy that will really bring about great change. Parenti contends that divestment ought to be part in a much larger campaign that focuses on government regulation to restrain the fuel companies and invest in renewable technologies.

“I’m not opposed to the divestment campaign,” Parenti told NYULocal last December. “I just think there should be other demands involved because divestment itself is actually not going to hurt the bottom line of the fossil fuel industry.”

Many students, however, feel that a university is the perfect place to incubate an effort like Divest.

“Fossil fuel companies are deeply invested in the government,” Sam Merkt, Gallatin senior studying sustainable development, said. “Universities are a good forum for this kind of change because they breed enthusiasm and action, rather than apathy.”

For now, it remains to be seen whether NYU’s administration will respond to calls to divest in fossil fuel holdings, or even reveal the exact dollar amount they hold in these companies. But back in the Grand Hall Tuesday night, the mood was nevertheless hopeful.

“Being where we are is great — at such dense university,” Warren said. “It’s the perfect place for things to just explode.”

Photos by Sophia Melas.



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