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Students push once more for fossil fuel divestment, backed by ACC-wide coalition

In an open letter sent to Duke administrators in late September,  student groups called on the University to divest from a variety of industries—this time as part of an ACC-wide coalition.

The letter calls on Duke to divest from fossil fuel holdings and any investments it holds in "other institutions and industries that are contributing to the climate crisis and systemic racism: weapons manufacturers, Puerto Rican debt, private prisons, mining, and any that exploit Indigenous lands." It was co-signed by 20 groups at Duke and backs other demands by student advocacy groups, including Duke's Black Coalition Against Policing

"The climate justice movement is inextricably connected to the Movement for Black Lives and to racial/economic justice as a whole," sophomore Nia Williams, who was involved in writing the letter, wrote in an email. "Our calls are not isolated ones, but rather in tandem with demands for police divestment, workers' rights and the designation of Duke as a sanctuary campus."

Although the letter was sent directly to Duke administrators—including President Vincent Price; Executive Vice President Tallman Trask; and Kimberly Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity and chief diversity officer—it came out of a broad movement. 

Earlier in the year, the newly-formed ACC Climate Justice Coalition, with representatives from across the Atlantic Coast Conference and a chapter at Duke that includes Williams, published an open letter calling on ACC schools—"with collective endowments of $58 billion"—to "divest from investments that compromise the values of students, staff and alumni and instead invest in areas that benefit all communities."

Currently, Syracuse University stands alone as the only ACC school to have committed to divestment, with "no evidence the endowment has suffered as a result of divestment," the school's chief financial officer told its student newspaper. 

The ACC-wide group also partnered with representatives of schools from the Big Ten Conference to issue a September news release pushing schools in both conferences to divest from fossil fuel holdings in the next decade. That press release came after the student body presidents of the 14 Big Ten schools unanimously issued their own statement calling for divestment in January 2020. 

Although the ACC and Duke climate justice movements are not currently working with student government, sophomore Robby Phillips, who helped organize the Duke letter, noted that the letter was the start of a new push for divestment, rather than the culmination of the group's efforts. 

"This is really the beginning, to initially lay out this call," Phillips said. "It's not necessarily a new call for divestment from fossil fuels, but what I think really does make this new is a recognition that climate change is so interconnected with other issues of racial and social justice."

The plan going forward is to work with student groups—like the Duke Climate Coalition—who are already involved with the push for divestment, with the goal of potentially "launching a more organized effort" next semester. 

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed in an email that administrators received the letter and referred the letter's writers to the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility. That committee includes faculty, administrators and students and had its first meeting of the semester on Monday. 

ACIR has had a central role in the push for fossil fuel divestment at Duke, largely in opposition. At an October 2019 open forum, Committee Chair Lawrence Baxter noted that the committee has recommended to Price that Duke not divest directly from fossil fuel corporations. 

That followed ACIR's May 2019 rejection of a Duke Climate Coalition resolution that pushed Duke to divest. ACIR's rejection argued that divestment would "polarize the debate over climate change rather than contribute constructively." 

Baxter, who still chairs the committee, wrote in an email that he had not received the letter, nor been approached by the ACC Climate Coalition after it was referred to him by Schoenfeld. Williams wrote that the group has "not yet had dialogue with admin besides their referral to the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility."

"Any Duke community organization is welcome to present a new, fully motivated petition and we will take it up in accordance with the mandate of the ACIR as recently revised by the Board [of Trustees]," Baxter wrote. 

Given Duke's history with divestment, Williams wrote that she is "not sure that Duke is as invested in climate justice as it claims to be," after "significant actions" by student and local organizations to push for divestment. However, recent statements by Duke may have sparked  some hope for the movement. 

"Duke's recently asserted commitments towards racial and climate justice have caught my attention, however," Williams wrote. "I strongly hope that they are not hollow and performative remarks."

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