Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Schlissel dismisses divestment

Wednesday, January 13, 2016 - 12:33pm

On Dec. 3, along with several of my peers, I attended a fireside chat with University President Mark Schlissel. This was meant to be a forum for us to ask him questions — anything we wanted to hear him talk about. Schlissel opened the session by describing these meetings as the most effective way for him to “feel the pulse” of the student body.

However, after leaving the chat and reflecting on the evening, I realized he had not actually been interested in listening to our words, or even in seriously considering our questions. Instead, Schlissel was there as a mouthpiece to dictate University policy.

One of Schlissel’s most puppet-like moments was when he tried to answer my question, which concerned the Divest and Invest campaign that has garnered attention on campus over the past year or so. My question to Schlissel went something like this: In continuing to invest heavily (around $1 billion) in the fossil fuel industry, Schlissel has to be considering the inherent utility of fossil fuels, especially for a massive research hub like the University. Well then, does Schlissel only intend to divest that large sum once that utility has vanished? If so, wouldn’t the state of our climate have already devolved at that point past any hope of salvation?

The answer I got went something like this: The University is, in fact working actively to combat climate change. Schlissel mentioned the recent $80 million (not much when compared to $1 billion) investment in a wind turbine, as well as other green philanthropy efforts, the installation of the Graham Sustainability Institute and environmental studies courses that “undergrads like me” can take.

Initially, nothing that he was saying irked me — this all changed when he declared that Divest and Invest wastes its time trying to change the University’s investment portfolio. He argued that the way the University spends its money is not where the real change happens — it happens, according to Schlissel, at City Hall, by the lawmakers. City Hall, he told me, is where we should turn our attention, because the University’s finances would not change anything; divesting would be largely a “symbolic” effort. Instead of focusing on this symbolism, he argued, students ought to focus on changing the laws themselves.

I have several responses. First, in 2013, the city of Ann Arbor already voted in favor of divestment. The vote was spurred by the work of activists such as my peers working for the Divest campaign. So, much of the battle at City Hall has already been done. The next step for student activists ought to focus on our campus. But surely Schlissel already knows that — clearly he just wanted to evade my question, which probed at direct action the University could take in response to climate change, an issue that the global community is beginning to approach with increasing levels of urgency.

In his response to my question, Schlissel did articulate that divestment as a symbolic action was among the “strongest” arguments he had heard in this debate. He went on: “If you could convince me that the University of Michigan shifting its investment portfolio away from fossil fuel companies would actually hasten our transition to renewables, then I’d think about it.”

Here’s how divestment helps speed up this transition: Convincing people to live more sustainable, less wasteful lives is only possible if those same people live in a culture where that lifestyle feels popular, or as if they are a part of a new, exciting trend. In other words, there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift in the direction of sustainability; an excellent first place to start for that shift, here on campus, would be the University divesting from the fossil fuel industry. The symbolism and the transition are integrally linked, and Schlissel misses this crucial point in the standard response he has been giving to students — myself included — throughout his tenure.

I took issue with another part of Schlissel’s response — specifically, his telling me that students should not focus on the campus climate around this issue, but should instead advocate for laws that we agree with. This dismissal of the divestment activism on this campus contradicts the fundamental notion — shared among all of us, I believe — that this University is meant to be a home. And in any home, the children — we students — ought to be able to fight for the change they wish to enact, to be able to negotiate with their parents — the administration — freely and honestly. They should not be dismissed.

Furthermore, Schlissel and I disagree most fundamentally about the meaning of money and the impact it can have. Divestment is crucial and worthwhile, even though the University will never be able to singlehandedly shut down the fossil fuel industry. If we divest, at least we would not explicitly support it. In the famous "Civil Disobedience", an essay that has guided social movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Henry David Thoreau discusses the power our spending holds, and how it can have a profound effect on the society we inhabit. Furthermore, Thoreau argues that any citizen has the power to advocate for the change they believe in. There are actions we can all take to fight back — specifically, we all control how we spend our money, and we control which corporations to support. If we ignore this power we have, not only are we wasting an opportunity to fight, but also, most crucially, we are complicit in the harmful activities of the politically and economically dominant groups.

Let me just be clear: Schlissel understands the logic of divestment as a means of civil disobedience. The problem must therefore be that Schlissel and the moneyed interests he represents are simply unwilling to divest from fossil fuels, perhaps because of their own interest in profit-making.

Instead of seeming to dismiss this movement — and, by extension, the work of the students he is supposed to serve — as a waste of time, Schlissel ought to heed Thoreau’s words. In our case, the University has $1 billion invested in an industry that is killing our planet, acting without any consideration for the scientific consensus that climate change shares a direct link to human activity. The University is consciously complicit, then, in the proliferation of an industry driven by ignorance, destruction and greed.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu