Pranay Somayajula, a sophomore double majoring in political science and international affairs, is a Sunrise GW organizer.
It’s a landmark that every student, passing through Kogan Plaza on the way to class, knows well – a large concrete slab, laid on the ground next to the dome, with the words “FREE MANDELA” carved in capital letters. The slab has been around since 1985, when student activists carved the words into drying cement in a campus alleyway as an act of protest against the South African apartheid regime. In 1999, when Kogan was remodeled, former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg chose to preserve the slab to serve as a sign of students’ commitment to political and social activism.
But the cruel irony of the memorial is that unlike 155 other colleges and universities across the country – including D.C. neighbor Georgetown University – GW never divested from South African apartheid. Instead, officials allowed the University to remain financially complicit, and we waited until years after the fact to cynically co-opt the work of student activists and use it as a selling point for admissions officers.
Now, four decades later, GW is again financially complicit in another moral issue: the climate crisis. The science is clear and unequivocal – climate change is real, it is caused by human activity and just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71 percent of global carbon emissions. Just as clear is the fact that left unaddressed, climate change is going to deny an entire generation any hope of a livable future. Its devastating effects are already being felt by communities of color and communities across the Global South, delivering the most acute harm to those who are the least responsible for this crisis. The term “climate change” is a sanitized euphemism. Let’s call it what it is – climate genocide.
And what is GW’s response to this sobering reality? Instead of acting swiftly, GW still has $50 million invested in the fossil fuel companies that are causing this crisis, or 3 percent of the University’s $1.78 billion endowment. As a point of comparison, GW’s Sustainable Investment Fund is worth a paltry $2 million, or just more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the endowment. Meanwhile, GW continues to remain the home of the Koch- and Exxon-funded Regulatory Studies Center, a corporate propaganda factory that advocates for the deregulation of the industries that are destroying our planet.
Our neighboring peer institutions understand that by investing their endowments in the fossil fuel industry, they are selling out their students’ futures and placing profit over people. As a result of years of tireless organizing by campus activists, AU announced April 22 – the 50th anniversary of Earth Day – it has fully divested from all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry, joining Georgetown, which announced its plans to divest on February 7.
Always one to stand out from the crowd, GW has opted for a slightly different approach to divestment. Whereas AU President Sylvia Burwell responded to students demanding divestment by offering them a meeting, University President Thomas LeBlanc compared divestment to “shooting all the black people here.” Whereas Georgetown responded to divestment protests by heeding calls for a change, GW sent its campus police force to assault peaceful student protesters. Instead of listening to 86 percent of the student body who voted in favor of divestment, Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights issued a noncommittal response and declined to commit to divesting.
GW’s steadfast refusal to divest from fossil fuels is the most recent symptom of a corrupt, power-hungry administration that is more concerned with holding onto its own power than it is with acting in the best interests of students and their futures. It illustrates the extent to which GW is a poster child for what happens when an unaccountable administration and undemocratic decision-making processes run a university like a private business rather than an esteemed institution of higher learning.
There are 17 days until the Board’s spring meeting on May 14. That’s 17 days for the Board to finally see the light and decide they no longer want to have blood on their hands. Seventeen days for the Board to heed the call of science, justice and the overwhelming majority of GW’s student body, and make clear with a vote to divest that they will no longer allow our university to remain complicit in climate genocide.
To LeBlanc, Speights and other Board members: the GW community is watching. If you choose once again to sell out our futures to the fossil fuel oligarchs, we will not forget it.
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