Committee hears student concerns regarding divestment


TPN file photo

Members of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition set up a cardboard “pipeline” in the Cathedral in Dec. 2016 in protest of the pipeline on Standing Rock’s reservation in December 2016. Stephen Caruso | Senior Staff Photographer

By Nina Kneuer and Sarah Shearer

The road toward Pitt divestment has been long — involving urges from student groups like Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, sit-ins in the Cathedral of Learning and countless painted banners. But on Wednesday, the effort took what may be the largest step it has to date.

“There’s a lot to do, but this is really really important that this is happening,” said Hannah Bailey, Pitt sophomore and urban studies major.

After years of activism and hard work by students, Pitt administrators publicly opened their minds to divesting the school’s endowment — which, in 2016, was $3.52 billion — from fossil fuels at a town hall meeting Wednesday, the first for Pitt’s new Socially Responsible Investments Committee.

“This has been a long time in the making,” Bailey said.

Two committee members headed the town hall — David Denis, a Pitt professor of finance and chair of the committee, and Young Sarah Grguras, a Pitt environmental studies senior and student representative member of the committee.

Students, faculty and community members discussed factors in University investing, including socially responsible investments. Denis opened the floor to attendees to express their thoughts and priorities in investing.

As expressed in the ongoing snaps and claps of approval to most who gave their opinions and spoke, many town hall attendees supported the possibility of the University breaking ties with their fossil fuels investments. Pitt junior and urban studies major Anais Peterson agreed.

“It would make sense for the committee’s next steps to make a very strong recommendation to the board that [fossil fuel divestment] is something students care about,” Peterson said. “[Fossil fuel divestment] is something that needs to happen as soon as possible, because I think that’s something we heard said over and over here tonight.”

Peterson is a member of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, an organization whose goal has been to foster collaboration within the University and investment committees to discuss ways Pitt can invest money in responsible ways.

“This University runs because students are spending their money here,” Peterson said. “It shouldn’t be a board of 36 people making those calls of where Pitt puts money, it should be students who have a voice in this process.”

Community member Mark Dixon, a filmmaker and activist in the Squirrel Hill community, was glad to see the focus on divestment. As a divestment advocate, Dixon said he hopes Pitt will become a university that works for its students.

“If the University, through its investment decision, undermines the potential for its students to live a good future, then it’s difficult to trust the University on what it’s teaching and how it’s teaching,” Dixon said. “It undermines the credibility and authority of the University.”

Bailey, a new member to the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, agreed that the University should prioritize students’ thoughts and needs when deciding where to spend its money — especially when investing in fossil fuels.

“We are just now finally winning this committee that we are able to use as a vehicle to try to pressure the administration to divest, because before that wasn’t even an option at all,” Bailey said.

Bailey said since the University has a mission to its students and to its community, especially within environmental concerns, it’s important that it gives students a voice.

“The University’s mission is to serve its students and serve its community,” Bailey said. “So if administration does not allow us to have a voice then the future is out of our hands.”

Bailey also said town hall meetings are a great opportunity for students to make change right on campus.

“I think that if you care about the environment and economic and environmental security, making changes here and pressuring the University here to step out of the fossil fuel industry is a good way to start to care about these types of issues, because it’s so close to home,” Bailey said.

Many attendees had strong opinions on the University’s course of action in fossil fuels and where money could be spent, but across them all was a common theme of deep care for the University of Pittsburgh community.

“I’m speaking out because I want the University to succeed,” Dixon said.

Peterson said although town hall meetings and a committee were a big step in the right direction for the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, attending the occasional meeting would not be enough.

“Students really have to be diligent in making sure that they’re involved throughout the process, otherwise this committee might not be used to create any change at the institutional level,” Peterson said.

The next town hall meeting is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 19, from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Kurtzman Room of the William Pitt Union.

“It’s not over until Pitt pledges to divest, there have been a lot of universities that have done so,” Bailey said. “These are things that are possible.”