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April 7, 2015

Council of the University Senate discusses divestment from fossil fuels

On Tuesday, March 31, the Council of the University Senate discussed divestment from fossil fuels, an initiative that the UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN) is pushing the University to adopt. UCAN hopes that this will motivate the Board of Trustees to discuss divestment as well.

Bruce Lincoln, professor of the history of religions and member of the Council of the University Senate, originally encouraged the Council to discuss divestment. He found that the attitude toward divestment was generally positive. “There wasn’t a lot of controversy; I think the Council was very responsive to the notion that climate change was a big issue and we’ve not addressed it adequately… I think there was very little disagreement,” he said.

However, Lincoln noted that the Council did in some cases disagree on whether or not divestment was the best way to address the issue of climate change. One faculty member, the second speaker in the open discussion, opposed divestment. “She thought it ‘disingenuous’ for us to claim moral high ground by divesting when we had done so little to reduce carbon emissions on our own campus or in our personal practice,” Lincoln wrote in an e-mail.

Other faculty members supported different moves to combat climate change, such as making the campus “greener,” but “no one (save the second speaker) was opposed to divestment and nobody thought it was inappropriate for us or the Board to be seriously considering the issue,” Lincoln wrote.

The Council was unable to make a motion or vote on the issue because decisions about the financial management of the University are officially under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trustees. However, the Council can give its advice or share its opinion with the Board on such matters, which it was able to do in this instance. According to Lincoln, President Robert Zimmer has committed to transmitting a summary of the discussion to the Board.

The Council was unable take action on the issue, because decisions about the financial management of the University are officially under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trustees. The Council is able to vote to give official advice with the Board on such matters, which it also did not do. However, according to Lincoln, President Robert Zimmer has committed to transmitting a summary of the Council's discussion to the Board.

The discussion is part of UCAN’s overall goal to bring the issue of divestment to the attention of the Board of Trustees. As part of the group’s continuing strategy to raise on-campus support, UCAN will hold a teach-in on Thursday, April 9 to explain divestment and its importance. According to second-year Johnny Guy, a UCAN organizer, the group has also planned a “walkback” for Friday of third week, from the Booth School of Business to the administrative offices, to protest the fact that the administration did not follow through on a promise it made to the UCAN.

“Last year, the administration made a commitment to us that they would set up a meeting between our campaign and one of the members of the Board of Trustees,” Guy said. “In a meeting this year, they subsequently redacted that promise.”

“We’re trying to get them to follow through or acknowledge publicly that they didn’t honor their commitment,” Guy added.

According to Guy, last May, UCAN met with Darren Reisburg, secretary of the University, who gave the group a commitment “in writing” that it would get a meeting with a member of the Board of Trustees. But winter quarter of this year, UCAN was told that the meeting would no longer happen. “[Reisburg] said that at the time that he had made that promise he didn’t understand the capabilities of his position, and after consulting with the president and the provost, he decided that it was an ‘inappropriate form of engagement,’ to use the administration-speak,” Guy said.

The Board of Trustees had already considered and dismissed the idea of divestment at one point, according to Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean UCAN’s efforts have been for nothing. “I doubt that the faculty’s discussion is going to change their mind on [divestment],” Lincoln said. “But it will have the effect of putting the issue in front of them again and showing them that it’s not going away.”

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