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Students Are Calling for Divestment and Here is Why We Should Listen

By Ryan Smith
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Universities across America are divesting from fossil fuels, many of which, are responding to the appeals of their student body. As Jeff Turrentine recounts his personal social justice efforts of the late 1980s, he noticed a familiar tone in the divestment pleas as they petition their respective administrators to action for the climate. And, many administrators are listening. As I noted last week, California Higher Education Sustainability Conference made a concerted effort to collaborate with students on campaigns of sustainability in higher education.  

Students are a deep well of fresh ingenuity, and fostering this inventiveness is not only good for the school, but better prepares their graduating classes for the world that awaits them. As Turrentine shared, "Any educational institution that claims to be preparing its students for the future shouldn’t be supporting a system that—according to 97 percent of climate scientists—poses the single greatest threat to that future."


The Old College Try

Jeff Turrentine | On Earth

As a college freshman arriving at the University of Texas in 1987, I assumed that anything I was to learn over the next four years about student activism would be learned via my American history classes. I knew campus protests had played important roles in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, but at the time, I was fairly certain that student-led civil disobedience was simply something that belonged to a previous generation of college kids—much like excess body hair or the poetry of Rod McKuen.

I was wrong. The late ’80s, in fact, represented something of a renaissance for student activism, which had only recently begun to show signs of life after nearly 20 years of relative dormancy. At my school, the animating issue was apartheid, opposition to which had been slowly building on American campuses for a decade before my arrival in Austin. In these protests, students and faculty members typically demanded that universities divest from businesses or funds that were in any way tied to the South African government and its racist policies.

And if, during the last few years of the Reagan era, my fellow freshmen and I were wondering whether student activism was still capable of making a difference, well, we soon learned that it was. Only three years earlier, the number of U.S. educational institutions choosing to divest from South Africa was 53; in 1987, that number more than doubled to 128. A year later it would grow to 155. Those who were paying attention started to realize that we were witnessing the achievement of critical mass, in real time: Once U.S.–based multinationals and government bodies began announcing their divestment decisions, apartheid’s days seemed numbered. It was finally dismantled in 1994—the same year that Nelson Mandela, the longtime anti-apartheid activist and political prisoner, was elected South Africa’s president.

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