Civil disobedience is alive and well at Stanford University this week, where upwards of 80 students have been sleeping, eating and peacefully protesting outside of President John Hennessy's office until the university signals it is willing to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.
The organizers behind the protest are Fossil Free Stanford, a group of about 30 students committed to holding their university accountable for environmental justice with strong backing from their peers, faculty and alumni. The group first formed in 2012 after five undergraduates heard environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben speak about global warming during a "Do the Math" tour that launched the fossil-fuel divestment movement.
Since then, more than 3,200 campus community members have signed a Fossil Free Stanford petition calling on the university to divest from fossil-fuel companies. More than 370 Stanford faculty have signed a letter calling for the same action, and hundreds of alumni have sent letters of support to Hennessy and the Board of Trustees.
Fossil Fuel Stanford's demands are driven by a goal of keeping the planet below 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-Industrial levels an internationally recognized benchmark, according to the group. In order to do so, 80 percent of known fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground.
Last year, the group was successful in spurring the university to divest its $21.4 billion endowment in coal, making Stanford's largest university fund to divest from coal, according to Fossil Free Stanford. In May 2014, the Board of Trustees announced it would no longer make direct investments of endowment funds in approximately 100 publicly traded companies for which coal extraction is the primary business, according to a May 2014 press release from the university.
Stanford also said it would recommend that its external investment managers, who invest in wide ranges of securities on behalf of the university, also avoid investments in these public companies, the release states.
"Stanford is one of only two institutions among those with the top 20 endowments to make any fossil fuel-related divestment (the other being the University of California)," University Spokeswoman Lisa Lapin wrote in an email to the Weekly.
"It is important to note that Stanford has taken more tangible actions toward preventing climate change than any university in the nation," she continued. "We invested $500 million in a first-of-its-kind power facility that recycles energy and relies on renewable fuel, as well as reduces water use, and has reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent.That new power plant came on line in April and has since been visited by dozens of countries, the White House and numerous governments, power suppliers and institutions who are looking to replicate our example.
"We have a model system that will make a significant contribution to a reduction in reliance on fossil fuel to power cities, large energy users and energy suppliers."
Stanford is also installing additional solar panels throughout campus, offering incentives to employees to encourage alternative transportation, retrofitting energy-intensive buildings and continuing research and teaching around sustainability issues, among other efforts, Hennessy and Board of Trustees Chair Steven Denning noted in a Oct. 28 letter to Lauren Fabius, the president of COP21, an upcoming international climate conference in Paris.
But since last May, divestment progress has stalled, student-organizers said Thursday morning despite their petition, support from faculty and alumni, rallies and other efforts to engage with the university on the issue. They are now demanding that Stanford immediately freeze any new investment in the world's top 100 oil and gas companies, ranked by carbon content of their proven fuel reserves, and within five years, divest from direct ownership in those 100 companies and from any combined funds that include their equities or corporate bonds. They are also asking that Stanford take action before the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris at the end of the month.
Their request is under review by Sanford's Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL), a group of students, faculty and staff that makes recommendations to the Board of Trustees, which makes final decisions, Lapin said.
On Monday, more than 100 Fossil Free Stanford students attempted to stage a sit-in in Hennessy's office but were locked out, they said. So they set up camp outside, and about 80 students from freshmen to master's students have been there ever since. There is now a makeshift camp of tents, sleeping bags, blankets and pillows among protests signs with messages, including "Trustees, stand with us against fossil fuels," "climate is a human issue," "divestment = hope" and "temperatures are rising, so are we."
Since Tuesday, several faculty have stopped by to lead teach-ins with titles like "Devils in the Details: Politics and Justice in Carbon Accounting," "Grassroots Community Organizing: Building Power for Collective Liberation" and "Climate of Denial: Past, Present, and Future of Climate Denialism." Other teachers also relocated their regular classes to the Main Quad. A handful of students attended a class on Thursday morning by setting up a video call on a laptop in the quad.
Yari Greaney, Fossil Free Stanford action coordinator and a master's student studying earth systems, said Stanford has a responsibility to divest a decision that could have far-reaching impacts.
"It's about what we as a leading institution say is acceptable and not acceptable," Greaney said, standing among tents and sleeping bags, with two Department of Public Safety Officers manning Hennessy's office door behind her. "And right now, we are saying that the fossil-fuel industry and their business model, which is to extract and combust far more than is safe to burn, is acceptable.
"We're here to say it's unacceptable and therefore we shouldn't have a vested interest in their success. It's been clear historically that when leading institutions, especially leading research institutions, take the lead in divestment, it does have an impact. It's really about playing our part and living up to our responsibility."
Stanford issued an official notice to the protesters on Tuesday, alerting them they were in violation of university policy as unscheduled and "unsanctioned" gatherings are not allowed in the Main Quad.
"In order to comply with university policy, you must leave the Main Quad with your belongings and the university is instructing you to do so," the notice reads.
Fossil Free Stanford issued its own response that paralleled the university's notice: "In order to comply with Stanford University's mission and Fundamental Standard, you must immediately divest from the rest of the fossil fuel industry. The student body and Stanford community are instructing you to do so."
Stanford's notice also warned the students to be aware of the potential consequences for the sit-in, including disciplinary and criminal action.
"Please make sure you are aware of these potential consequences and be prepared to accept them," the notice reads.
Fossil Fuel Stanford quipped: "Please make sure you are aware of the potential consequences of catastrophic climate change and continued investment in the fossil fuel industry. Can you accept the consequences of your own inaction?"
The faculty letter of support, issued in January, said that while Stanford's divestment from coal set a "precedent of responsibility integrity," there is more to be done.
"The urgency and magnitude of climate change call not for partial solutions, however admirable; they demand the more profound and thorough commitment embodied in divestment from all fossil-fuel companies," the letter reads. "The alternative for Stanford to remain invested in oil and gas companies presents us with a paradox: If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?"
Hennessy last met with student representatives of Fossil Free Stanford on Nov. 11 and "has agreed to meet with them again by appointment," a university press release states.
Organizers said Thursday he had agreed to hold a public meeting with them on Friday, but it had not yet been scheduled.
Sijo Smith, a sophomore and Fossil Free Stanford's administrative liaison, said the students plan to remain outside Hennessy's office "until we see meaningful action."