University of Michigan students know a little something about how difficult it can be to get a resistant administration to stop investing in fossil fuels.
Even convincing the school to greenlight a committee to just explore the issue was a hair-pulling hassle. In 2015, a group of University of Michigan law students tried to do just that but “basically got the middle finger from the university,” says Jonathan Morris, a University of Michigan Ph.D. student who has long been involved in divestment efforts.
It took years of demonstrating, building coalitions, and hard work, but this year that middle finger turned into a hard-won handshake. The University of Michigan has committed to discontinue its investments in fossil fuel companies and approved $140 million in renewable energy investments.
The University of Michigan isn’t the only one to cave to student demands. Universities are divesting billions from fossil fuels because of student action. The groups behind those campaigns, which stretch across the globe from the U.S. to the UK to Australia, give similar advice if you want to encourage your university to divest too: Keep applying pressure and don’t give up.
. In the U.S., which has roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, about 60 have done the same, according to data compiled by Fossil Free, a divestment tracking project by environmental advocacy group 350.org.
Many schools argue they won’t divest because they have a responsibility to increase income from their donations, and they are working to find climate change solutions via university research versus withholding their pocketbooks, the Associated Press reported. Some also generally contend that as investors in fossil fuel companies they can develop stakeholder sway over energy company decisions.
But J. Clarke of People & Planet, a social and environmental justice group that works with students to get UK universities to divest, sees a different motivation.
“I think the biggest reason why universities don’t want to divest is the biggest reason why students do,” says Clarke. “It’s a political statement… [Universities] don’t want to be seen as taking a side.”
Student activists and their allies know divestment is just one piece of a bigger puzzle when it comes to climate change.
“Divesting alone won’t solve the climate crisis and I don’t think that’s ever what students have been arguing,” says Clarke. “What they have said, really clearly over a decade now, is this is a tangible first step you can take.”
While there’s no magical formula to get any school to abandon the fossil fuel industry, Mashable spoke with University of Michigan students and alumni and Clarke, about how they accomplished their divestment goals. Their tactics, which were honed through trial and error, may help streamline your own divestment advocacy.
1. Start small and then escalate
As a first step, tell your university (via an email or in-person conversation with administration leaders) why you want it to divest from fossil fuels. This way school officials can’t say they didn’t know this was an issue students cared about when you scale up your advocacy.
“You have a really reasonable grounding to say, “We told you about it. We made our case and you didn’t listen,” says Clarke. “That justifies, in our opinion, further action.”
In the best-case scenario, your school administration would pull its money soon after you first complained. But that rarely happens, says Clarke.
Instead, your group will probably need to inform more people on campus about the university’s investment through non-violent marches and sit-ins. This tactic can dually educate and engage other students in your cause. You don’t want to give the impression you’re going away, says Clarke.
While you don’t have to be rude, if your administration is adversarial Morris cautions against wasting time.
“Our campaign’s initial approach was polite and tame and we spent a lot of time, emotional energy, and morale ‘playing by the game,’ says Morris.
Don’t be afraid to ratchet up the pressure as long as your efforts remain non-violent.
2. Support other student groups
The first tangible win for University of Michigan students’ divestment campaign happened when they attended a Board of Regents meeting in December 2019, says Sasha Bishop, another University of Michigan student involved in the divestment push. The Board of Regents is a group of eight elected people who govern the public university.
Regents were voting on a proposed $50 million investment in oil and gas properties. Students at the meeting denounced it in public comments and through chanting. Their pressure seemed to work because, before the meeting ended, the regents voted against the proposal.
The student group, called Climate Action Movement, joined forces with another student group, the One University Campaign, which isn’t climate related, says Bishop. It fights for equitable funding among the university’s three campuses.
The administration, according to Bishop, continuously stonewalled and dismissed both groups. But they found common ground and a common fight.
“We were essentially told by the administration that ‘Oh, to act on climate, what we’re going to do is cut funding to our low-income students first,'” says Bishop. “That was an administrative tactic to split up the activists on campus, to pit us against each other, instead of against them.”
While this dynamic might not exist at your university, you should still support other student groups. Attend their meetings and publicize their events, without asking for a favor.
“Every time we did something that supported other groups it benefited us because it fights for co-liberation,” says Bishop.
Clarke echoes this sentiment and says, more often than not, people reciprocate this behavior.
“Those kinds of broader coalitions that are based in principles of genuine solidarity and mutual support are so powerful and [is] something the climate movement could do more of,” Clarke says.
3. Understand and flip power
Before that board meeting, the Climate Action Movement received emails from regents asking if they’d even be able to hold their meeting, says Bishop.
In that moment, the power dynamic flipped, she says. “We had more power than they did, and they knew that.”
That happened, Morris says, because of the negative press the university attracted after 10 demonstrators were arrested when they refused to leave university grounds as part of the March 2019 global climate strike. Demonstrators wanted a one-hour meeting with Mark Schlissel, the university president, to discuss their list of climate change-related demands, including divestment.
The arrests were pivotal to get the community to realize how poorly the administration had acted because they didn’t want to divest, says Morris. (Although, the students say, the goal of any demonstration shouldn’t be to get arrested.)
However, the group learned early on that Schlissel was against divestment. Instead, of trying to convince him to get on their side, they decided the most effective tactic was to get other powerful stakeholders on their side.
One way to do that is to figure out where the university gets its money.
“Think about donors, think about tuition. If you can threaten either of those sources of money, that’s a really great place to start,” says Bishop.
After the university announced its plans to divest this March, Schlissel publicly supported the move.
“Endowments by their very nature are future-looking,” he said, according to The Detroit News. “Today we position our investment strategies to meet the challenges of the future.”
4. Organize targeted actions
Universities rely on selling themselves so they can’t afford to be embarrassed, says Bishop. If you damage their image, this can hurt their endowments.
For example, the Climate Action Movement staged an event during the opening of the university’s natural history and biological sciences building in 2019.
“The president came to the inauguration, cut the ribbon… All these fancy donors and people in suits were there and there was a huge audience,” says Morris.
Students dropped banners during the event. One said “UM has $1BN in Fossil Fuels, Divest.”
Effective and concise messaging like that can help people quickly see the point of your cause, says Leah Webber, an undergraduate student at University of Michigan involved in the divestment campaign.
Messaging can take other forms too. Students silently unveiled the banner and then, later on, walked out.
They didn’t talk because that would have verbally disrupted the ceremony. People might have perceived it as shaming their colleagues who work in that building. Rather, unrolling their banners and walking out got across their displeasure with the administration.
As a plus, the university’s student newspaper included information and photos about the demonstration in its headline and coverage of the ceremony.
Morris also suggested talking with climate change activists scheduled to speak on campus and “airing the university’s dirty laundry.” For example, the Climate Action Movement contacted environmentalist and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben, who spoke at the University of Michigan in 2017. As part of his talk, McKibben then urged the university to disinvest from fossil fuels.
If students want to go one step further, they can ask the speaker to drop out of the talk because of the university’s investment, Clarke says.
“That would be an incredibly effective form of pressure…,” says Clarke.
Overall, Morris suggests students brainstorm who they can reach out to and how to amplify and disseminate their message as loudly and widely as possible.
5. Use social media wisely
While social media isn’t everything, it can be a helpful tool in your fight. But don’t let it take up all your time and energy.
Sometimes just maintaining a social media account can become the only work you do, says Clarke. To avoid this trap, incorporate low-effort social media content.
For example, post a photo of your group after a meeting and invite your followers to an upcoming one or correct any misleading content from your university. If your university boasts about its sustainability efforts, your group can quote tweet that with info about its fossil fuel investments.
Content like this can be especially helpful for a small group because it won’t suck up all your bandwidth and can still attract more followers and engage current ones.
6. Involve press
Media is another way to get your message out and get buy-in from students and the community.
“Any time you’re having an action, I think there is a misconception among brand-new organizers that the press just magically shows up,” says Bishop. “And they don’t always.”
Reach out to student, local, and national media in your community and invite them to your events. This won’t guarantee their attendance but can help put your group on their radar.
If you can’t get journalists to attend, you should still write a press release about what happened at the event and send it to news organizations, says Bishop. You may not get coverage, but it’s important to keep trying.
Relationships with well-established student and community groups can pay off here too.
“They’re going to have journalists they call or email or they’re going to know how to submit an op-ed or a press release,” says Bishop. “They’re going to know how to pitch an event and say, ‘Hey, come.’ And that skill is critical.”
7. Rally support in unlikely places
While your university may not be thrilled with your push for divestment, powerful people sympathetic to your cause could be hiding in plain sight.
“It is likely there will be some members of the administration that are more friendly than others,” says Morris.
In the University of Michigan’s case, those people were some university regents. The students emailed those who showed interest with details like how much money the university had invested in specific fossil fuel companies.
Sometimes they didn’t even know about these investments, says Morris. After pointing them out, some regents shared their disappointment with their colleagues.
Morris doesn’t have a foolproof way to find these allies in positions of power, but here’s what worked for Michigan students: Initially, the Climate Action Movement emailed the entire group of regents and the university president with links about the investments. A few regents responded back expressing their allegiance with the students and that something needed to be done.
While it’s not your job to educate regents what they’re voting on, this information can be helpful to get a few on your side, says Webber.
“It was very useful for us to have those channels with a couple friendly people in the administration to help flip that power dynamic,” says Morris.