Tensions escalate between Fossil Free Pitt, University amid month of student protest


Amaya Lobato | Staff Photographer

Members of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition protest outside of the Chancellor’s office Friday afternoon.

By Punya Bhasin, News Editor

For the past month, the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition has staged sit-ins outside Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s office in the Cathedral of Learning every Friday to protest Pitt’s “anti-environment” investments. Protestors carry signs that read “There is no planet B” and “Pitt invests in the end of the world.” 

At last Friday’s sit-in, tensions rose when a University employee asked about 20 student protestors to leave the Cathedral and threatened police involvement if they didn’t comply. Students fired back, saying they weren’t violating any rules and wanted to continue protesting. Police were not called to the scene.

Student Affairs said in a statement that students have the right to “engage in peaceful and orderly demonstrations, to the extent that they do not violate public law and do not interfere with the educational process or the rights of other members of the University,” and that FFPC has been informed of their “rights and responsibilities” under the Student Code of Conduct. 

The sit-in marks the latest example of tensions between student environmental activists and the University. For years, FFPC and other student organizations have pressured the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry. 

In March, Pitt released its inaugural Environmental, Social and Governance Report for its $5.6 billion endowment to give “greater clarity” on how ESG factors are applied to decisions on investments. Pitt delayed the report’s release by about three months. The Consolidated Endowment Fund is governed by the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees and managed by the Office of Finance. 

FFPC members called the ESG report “disappointing” when it was released due to a lack of specific metrics for socially responsible investing, and continued to express their displeasure with the University’s investments in fossil fuels at a meeting last Wednesday. The Ad Hoc Committee on Fossil Fuels reported in January that private holdings in fossil fuels will decrease to zero by the end of 2035. According to the ESG report, the financial office has not made any new fossil fuel investments since February 2021.

FFPC, student representatives from the Student Office of Sustainability and Student Government Board members met last Wednesday with Jeffer Choudhry, Pitt’s chief investment officer, and the Office of Finance to discuss the University’s sustainability efforts. 

The University denied a request from The Pitt News to attend the meeting. Members of FFPC also said they requested that The Pitt News be permitted to attend the meeting, which the University denied.

Kanika Vaghela, a junior economics and statistics major and FFPC member, set up the meeting and said after sending multiple follow-ups, she felt the University did not care about their concerns.

“Their excuse was that they were busy and it was hard to find time,” Vaghela said. “On our end, we think they were just buying time to come up with excuses for not putting out a solid comprehensive ESG report.”

Meredith Felde, a FFPC member, said the meeting with Choudry was “incredibly frustrating” and they felt he was dismissive of their ideas. She also said the University was unclear about whether they would release a second ESG report to keep the campus community updated.  

“We wanted them to set a precedent of annual report and they were wishy-washy about whether they would be able to produce the second ESG report on time,” Felde, a junior sociology major, said. “It’s important for us to keep track of the University’s investment decisions, but also it’s a symbolic representation of how much they value keeping the Pitt community informed about their investment choices.”

Choudry said it was “a pleasure” to meet with representatives from SGB, the SOOS and FFPC. 

“The meeting provided both students and staff with an opportunity to freely discuss Environmental, Social, and Governance concerns, as well as the role of the endowment and how it is invested,” he said. “These meetings serve to enhance mutual awareness and understanding of these important topics, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.”

A University spokesperson did not directly respond to questions about students’ concerns that they felt unheard in the meeting, or their claims that the University lacks substantive sustainability efforts.  

Evan Roncace, a senior political science and Russian major, said FFPC will continue having sit-ins in front of the Chancellor’s office to “put pressure” on the University. 

“[Gallagher is] constantly dismissing us as a priority for the University and it is clear divestment is also not a priority at this University,” Roncace, a FFPC member said. “That’s why we’re doing this, we’re going to keep putting pressure because it is important that the University invests in better, more environmentally conscious things.”

Felde also criticized the University for “greenwashing,” saying Pitt is taking advantage of student-run sustainability efforts.

“In addition to our meeting with them being a ploy for sustainability, we are asked to collect extra resources and do the work for them,” Felde said. “We’re asked to research resources about divestment and give them case studies about how they could improve, but [they] refuse to implement them or do any work themselves.”

Felde added that Gallagher has acknowledged their sit-ins in front of his office by simply saying “See you next week.” 

“If Chancellor Gallagher were to speak about the University’s financial actions regarding climate change he would be putting himself in clown makeup,” Felde said.