Climate Inaction: Historical activism and the University’s response to the climate movement

Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 3:35pm

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Bentley Historical Library, Cameron Hunt, Danyel Tharakan

The University of Michigan had a total enrollment of 48,090 students in fall 2019, but apart from people flooding Ingalls Mall during Festifall or joining the crowd walking toward the Big House on game day, there has seldom been a moment I’ve felt the weight of how huge the University actually is. People are constantly bustling through the Diag, earbuds in, laughing with friends or climbing up the steps to Hatcher. However, I’ve never seen such concentrated effort and clear community support as on March 15 and Sept. 20 for the Washtenaw County Climate Strikes. University students and community members alike showed up en masse to speak out against Ann Arbor’s and the University of Michigan’s complacency in the climate crisis and the need for immediate, direct action. While activism and protests on campus have occurred around me for all five of my semesters, the climate movement has made itself visible and loud — despite the University’s unwillingness to listen.

The University has a well-documented history of student activism that ranges from widespread participation in the civil rights movement in the 1960s to strong anti-war efforts during the Vietnam War. Students at the University have historically invoked their freedom of assembly as a response to social and political change off campus and to promote institutional accountability and awareness in Ann Arbor. 

Today, students continue this legacy by organizing protests, teach-ins, social media campaigns and strikes. They do so with the goal of addressing injustices the University has seen in recent years — acts of racism on campus, controversial sexual misconduct policies and the obvious lack of climate action efforts. While the scope of these movements can vary student activists have been deliberate in using grassroots organizing to make their causes accessible while making clear demands for local action. 

Past student activism — particularly the anti-apartheid movement — reflects the obstacles institutions create for activists who are fighting to have their needs met. The anti-apartheid movement was prominent on campus from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, and was fueled by nationwide protests at universities with investments in corporations linked to apartheid in South Africa. These conversations were part of great political, economic and ethical discourse, not only in Ann Arbor, but across the entire U.S. On March 16, 1978, the Daily published a near-full page spread headlined “How nation views S. African holdings,” with two separate subsections titled “Congress frowns on investments” and “Business, unions join debate …” The piece includes an editor’s note commenting that this article preceded the University’s Board of Regents monthly meeting where the board was expected to discuss what to do — if anything — about University investment in South African companies.

The piece outlines the arguments for and against divestment following a report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’s Subcommittee on African Affairs, where it was determined “the net effect of American investment has been to strengthen the economic and military self-sufficiency of South Africa’s apartheid regime.” This led to three different recommendations by Congress, which included cutting U.S. credit to South Africa, denying tax credit to U.S. corporations paying taxes to the South African government or withholding the official endorsement of private groups that defend South African investment. While none of these recommendations were direct divestment, the subcommittee commented on the potential need for stronger action, should the recommendations prove ineffective.

The prominent national conversations regarding investments were focused on by students and The Michigan Daily. As The Daily reported on March 18, 1978, then-editors requested the Board of Student Publications to “withdraw the paper’s assets from University investment pool” in protest of the Regents’ inaction on divestment from South African companies. The request was denied. 

The Daily then reported more in-depth on the board’s decisions in its March 19, 1978 edition

It was explained that the board “adopted Regent Thomas Roach’s resolution, which calls on the University to vote at shareholders’ meetings in favor of reforming the apartheid governmental and social structure in South Africa.” This resolution also called for the University to write to other corporations to encourage the adoption of the anti-discriminatory Sullivan principles, which are two corporate codes of conduct that promote corporate social responsibility.

To contextualize anti-apartheid sentiment on campus, South African graduate student Leonard Suransky commented to The Daily for the March 19, 1978 article: “The name University of Michigan goes before you and echoes around the world. … Always the term education is linked to morality … we are not going to change South African policy by politicking with our stocks.”

The inaction of the board caused a continual push for change, with activists making their concerns and voices known and causing significant strife between the board and the Washtenaw County Coalition Against Apartheid. This led to mass demonstrations in and outside board meetings, with events like the March 15-16, 1979 Board of Regents meeting where WCCAA organized a protest with over 200 students, demanding a review of South African investment and its immediate divestment. This prompted the board to issue a temporary restraining order against WCCAA — and the arrest of two students. University President Allan Smith, in a letter to the public, emphasized that the Regents’ agreement to review investments was strong enough, and the need for “action now”, which the students were calling for, was inappropriate.

Small wins came alongside more student protests, and demonstrations regarding both divestment and the administration’s silencing of student activism became routine. On April 19, 1979, the Regents meeting was protested by WCCAA participants wearing gags, who had stated through a press release that “we are gagged today because; a) the Regents have used the courts to stifle the spirit of the Open Meetings Act; b) for two years the Board of Regents have avoided open discussion of divestment; c) in South Africa, to call for divestment is a violation of the Terrorism Act of 1967, which is punishable by a minimum sentence of 5 years and a maximum sentence of death.” These protests continued alongside the board’s votes against divestment, until May 1979, when “the University divested $227,647 from Black and Decker Manufacturing Company.”

With help from the Michigan legislature — led by state Rep. Perry Bullard, D-Ann Arbor — legally-driven divestment became possible. Student protests continued to draw attention to the anti-apartheid movement at the University, and the protests continued well into the late 1980s as the University fought legal battles against state bills, particularly Bullard’s House Bill 4553, which was eventually signed into law on Dec. 31, 1982 and became Public Act 512. This act forced the divestment of Michigan public colleges and universities from South African companies, and the University had until April 1, 1984, to completely divest these stocks.

While the University fought in court against the law, largely over semantics regarding the “unconstitutional intrusion upon the powers and the authority of the Regents to direct expenditures of the University’s funds,” they did come to the “90% Solution,” which divested the University from all American corporations that operated in South Africa, excluding those with significant impact in the state of Michigan.

In the same way that longstanding, public protests against apartheid led to campus awareness and support, environmental activism has been extremely visible following the mass participation of locals and University students in the March 15, 2019 Washtenaw County Climate Strike. This strike was part of the Global Climate Strike and Fridays for Future movement created by environmentalist Greta Thunberg in August 2018. The demands of the Washtenaw County Climate Strike, an initiative put together by a number of Ann Arbor climate activism groups, including but not limited to the University’s Climate Action Movement, included a subsection titled “Stay Committed in Good Faith: Create Ambitious Climate Goals and Accountable Decision-Making Processes,” which was echoed by a sit-in staged in the University’s Fleming Administration Building following the rally. 

At this March sit-in, protesters had one demand before they would agree to leave: President Mark Schlissel commit to having a minimum one-hour public meeting moderated by a student of the organizers’ choice. Ten protesters were then arrested. And despite Schlissel’s letter to the Climate Action Movement six days later, following the arrests, in which he agreed to meet this single demand with a public session that was subsequently planned for and held April 9, the charges against the climate protesters continued and are still continuing. Calls for the administration to drop these charges has become a central push of climate activists, with the Climate Action Movement circulating a petition that currently has more than 700 signatures. 

The Climate Action Movement is “a coalition of University stakeholders … that are driving the President, Regents and Deans to enact sustainability policy and ethics that reflect the values of the broader U of M community with a focus on the commitment to, and attainment of, carbon neutrality.”

U.S. News & World Report published a piece headlined “10 Universities With the Biggest Endowments” in which the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, was ranked eighth with an $11,733,013,000 end of fiscal year 2018 endowment. The article defines university endowments as “the value of their investments based on donated money and financial assets, which can total billions of dollars,” and contextualizes the use of these funds across university expenses. A National Association of College and University Business Officers study from earlier this year, examining 802 U.S. colleges and universities, found that an average of 49 percent of endowment funds are dedicated to student scholarships and financial aid programs, while others are funelled into university projects, like the construction of residence halls.

With this understanding of the endowment in mind, the topic of divestment has been contentious between climate activists and the University administration, with Schlissel publicly stating in his April 9 public session that “Essentially, we don’t divest. It’s not this cause, it’s essentially all causes. … We get more payout from our endowment here than we get money from the state of Michigan, so it’s really critical for us as a robust university. … If we begin the process of narrowing what the endowment can invest in, based on very valid arguments and concerns from sincere people, the ability to invest shrinks, the value of the endowment goes down and the institution suffers. We’re just not going to divest.” 

Despite the endowment’s vast economic complexity and the administration’s dedication to maintaining a robust and open business strategy, the Climate Action Movement stands behind the push to divest the $1.12 billion the University has invested in natural resources according to the 2018 Report of Investments. Natural resources are defined in the report as “investments in companies located primarily in the U.S. that produce oil and natural gas, and companies that service those industries, as well as non-energy related investments in minerals, mining, and wetland restoration.” Despite Schlissel’s statements concerning the lack of will of the University to divest regardless of the cause, members of the Climate Action Movement have a clear basis to point back to the historical precedent of the anti-apartheid movement. There are reasons for the economic separation between the University and ethically problematic industries.

When discussing the call for divestment and the response of the administration, Sasha Bishop, a member of the Climate Action Movement and Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, stated “one of the arguments that we’ve heard a lot from the University is that the endowment is not political, right, but they have actually in the past taken the stance that it is, given the instances where they divested from apartheid and tobacco.” 

Contextualizing the Climate Action Movement with pushes against morally abhorrent investment from the past gives clarity to the extent to which student activism must go in order to receive credible attention from influential institutions like the University. In the case of apartheid, it took years of student protests to prompt the involvement of the state legislature, which led to the University’s eventual push toward the blatantly clear and ethical choice of divestment. With the 20/20 vision that historical hindsight gives, the University’s eventual, 90-percent divestment from South Africa can be seen as a stand against the wrongdoing of an oppressive government and something to proudly stand behind — despite the University’s shameful years-long fight against moral political activism.

Dim Mang, LSA senior and Climate Action Movement member, cited two of the Climate Action Movement’s biggest demands — divestment from fossil fuels and carbon neutrality by 2030 — and commented on the importance of care when working with a coalition. She stated that “Working in coalition with whether it’s undocumented rights or affordable housing … we are trying to be as supportive as possible. But our main goals have really been the divestment from fossil fuel initiatives, and then carbon neutrality.” 

Mang then went on to comment on the University’s response to the activism she’s been involved with on campus. According to Mang, “They have the same response to all student activism, which is that they’ll give you just a little bit so that they can kind of keep you at bay, but they won’t give you what you actually need to be able to sustain and do the work you want to do.”

Climate activists have echoed Mang’s frustration over the University’s cosmetic responses to the activism happening, with solutions that only work to placate the movement. This is evident in contradictory actions like Schlissel’s April 9 public session, despite the University’s choice to continue prosecuting the climate activists who were arrested on March 15 to have this meeting. Or the creation of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality which is intended to “(develop) recommendations for how to achieve carbon neutrality for U-M, as well as develop scalable and transferable strategies that can be used by other institutions and larger communities to achieve the same goal.” However, the University does not allow the commission to discuss either divestment or the expansion of the Central Power Plant, an institution that continues and will continue to tie us to fossil fuels.

As a touted research institution, with an entire school dedicated to sustainability and the environment, the University is aware of the dangers of climate change. Climate change is upon us. It was stated at a U.N. General Assembly this March that there are only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. But for many communities of color, low-income communities, indigenous communities, members of the LGBTQ community and other marginalized peoples, the time is already up and the effects are already real. Climate action must come now, and the University must listen to the voices of its students and faculty who refuse to accept complacency. Climate action is ethical social justice, and it must be prioritized.

The University continues to respond to climate activism with a mixture of appeasement and suppression, but student activism must go on and pressure the University to take the proper stand against the climate crisis. It is laborious work, but necessary in making student voices heard.

Bishop ended our interview by commenting on the importance of student activism on the University campus. After citing the University’s mission statement, “to serve the people of Michigan and the world,” she stated “And so in that sense, from my perspective, at least, (the University is) beholden to actually listen to students when they are saying that something is wrong. The University is not actually serving the people of Michigan, and the people of the world in the way that it should be.”

“And when it comes to climate change, we really are talking about the subject of the entire planet.”

Erin White is a Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at ekwhite@umich.edu.