Divestment key in addressing University’s strive toward environmental sustainability

In the late 1940s, South Africa’s newly elected National Party legalized the system of strict racial segregation known as apartheid. The regime segregated public institutions, sanctioned white-only jobs and prohibited interracial marriages. As resistance built, police forces cracked down on demonstrations with brutality and subsequent torture; many of those taken into custody disappeared forever.

While South African citizens continued to fight injustice on the front lines, international groups, outraged at the systemic oppression, launched one of the largest solidarity movements the world has seen. In the 1980s, American college students, eager to support the struggle, protested the financial involvement of their universities, calling on them to withdraw their holdings from the South African government.

Social rights activist Desmond Tutu noted that, “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world…”

It has been nearly 20 years since the official abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. Nevertheless, injustice still exists, and it is still university sanctioned.

Universities across the country have enormous endowments. The University of Illinois has both an active endowment for the Urbana-Champaign campus (about $375 million) and an endowment for the entire university system (standing at $1.7 billion). These endowments are composed of large donations and gifts as well as returns on investments.

As its size indicates, the endowments hold tremendous influence. Although the University might make commendable strides for sustainability, as it has in the areas of facility standards and research, these steps are nullified when accompanied by large investments that contradict their end goal.

While the Illinois Climate Action Plan is working to end our consumption of coal on campus, the Illinois investment policy is to export the costs of coal elsewhere and profit from it. This presents an unavoidable dilemma; the University administration is championing values in public statements, but funneling thousands (or millions) of dollars into bets against them.

Coal’s devastating impacts on Illinois communities are both diverse and expansive. It forces one to contemplate how a university can claim to be sustainable when it profits from the destruction of natural landscapes and productive farmland, the pollution of drinking water supplies, and the devastation of fish and wildlife species.

It is equally perplexing that an institution can genuinely assert an interest in public health when it funds power plants responsible for 621 premature deaths and 1,018 heart attacks annually in the state of Illinois, according to the Prairie Rivers Network.

Perhaps most reprehensible is the fact that our University markets itself as a center for diversity when it profits from the disproportionate pollution of low-income communities of color, perpetuating a system of eco-apartheid.

There is a clear imperative to develop investment practices that are consistent with our values.

Across the country, the call for coal divestment is building. In 2011, the UIUC campaign was one of only three groups in a nascent movement. In the time since, the campaign has collected thousands of petition signatures, passed a resolution through the Illinois Student Senate and earned the support of campus and community groups.

In 2013, over 300 colleges, churches, institutions and municipalities are pushing for divestment. Some from coal (as UIUC is working for) and some from a set of 200 fossil fuel companies. Many of these campaigns have already succeeded.

Last Thursday, the UIUC Beyond Coal campaign brought this dilemma before the Board of Trustees, the governing body at the University of Illinois. The ask of UIUC Beyond Coal was not that the University divest from the “Filthy Fifteen,” the most harmful coal mining and utilities companies, immediately, but that the Board of Trustees meet for conversation:

-That the Board of Trustees acknowledges and contemplates the body of research that has been developed in support of fossil fuel divestment.

-That the Board of Trustees remains open to the fact that we should not invest in companies like Edison International, whose Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods caused 42 premature deaths, 66 heart attacks and 720 asthma attacks each year.

-That the fundamental purpose of a university, to prepare an existing generation to confront the world’s problems, be reaffirmed and acted upon by not contributing to the greatest of those problems.

The world has changed since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. But in that time, students have stood in solidarity with those on the front lines of the fight for ending genocide in Sudan, cutting off support of tobacco, immigration reform and worker’s rights.

It is clear that injustice has not gone away — and neither have we.

Tyler Rotche, senior in LAS, co-president of Students for Environmental Concerns