Duke students overwhelmingly voted for divestment: What’s next?

During Duke Student Government president and executive vice president elections on March 3 and 4, nearly 2,800 undergraduate students cast their votes on the following question: “Are you in favor of calling on Duke to permanently end all direct and indirect investments in companies that explore for or develop fossil fuels; and reinvest in sustainable businesses, industries, and funds?” 

The referendum was written and added to the DSG election by the senate on behalf of the Duke Climate Coalition in February. 

The Divestment Referendum has been a part of an ongoing and contentious campaign. The results of the 2022 referendum reinforced the student body’s desire to move away from investing in fossil fuels. Of the 2,757 students that voted, 2,456 were for divestment and 203 were against it. 

Student organizers first began to push for divestment in 2012. The following year saw a coordinated effort involving phone banking, petitions, and protests that garnered national attention

Climate activists have directed their campaigning efforts towards the University’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility. The ACIR does not possess direct decision-making power. It makes recommendations to Duke’s president, who can then bring them before the Board of Trustees. Historically, the ACIR has rejected student-driven proposals for divestment. Nearly a decade after the initial push for divestment, little progress has been made towards the goal of divesting in carbon-based energy sources. 

Showing student support and garnering momentum

First-year Abby Saks, a member of the Duke Climate Coalition, believed the referendum revealed the student body’s continued interest in divestment. 

ACIR Chair Lawrence Baxter told The Chronicle last April that he encouraged students to show increased interest in conversations about divestment, saying that student voices weigh heavily into ACIR decisions. In reference to a poorly-attended November 2020 open forum about divestment, Baxter told The Chronicle that the meeting was “not as inquiring” as previous meetings. 

Saks hoped that the outcome of the 2022 referendum would send a clear message to the ACIR about strong continued student support. “We are just trying to prove [Baxter] wrong with the referendum,” she said. 

DCC Treasurer Brennan McDonald, a sophomore, feels the growing tide of student-led divestment movements across the country and believed that the results of the referendum added momentum to a powerful cause. 

“I think this just adds onto the momentum here, and helping show to the administration that we the students care about it, and that it's an important issue, and that there's not enough time for them to, you know, try to drag things out, like they have for the past nine years,” McDonald said. “They have to start thinking about changing right now.”

Though Duke has not yet made a commitment to divestment, climate activists recently achieved a major victory at Harvard University: in 2021, after years of public pressure, Harvard stated its commitment to divest from fossil fuels. This win provided hope to other proponents of divestment across the country.

Differing visions for a greener future

The ACIR and DCC disagree on the practicality and efficacy of divestment. In 2019, the ACIR rejected a 40-page report from the DCC on the financial case for it. The organization published a 29-page response.

“We thought that that was not the most effective way, even though it might create some sort of symbolic statement,” Baxter said at an open forum in 2019. 

McDonald was hopeful that the outcome of the referendum would incentivize action. 

“Our hope is that the ACIR will be encouraged to reevaluate their past decisions on fossil fuel divestment from a combination of these referendum results, recent decisions by other universities in the US to divest, and the increasing urgency of the climate crisis,” McDonald wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Baxter wrote in an email that “no one has approached [him] or the ACIR about the referendum” and he has “only learned about it via indirect sources.” 

“The ACIR has no current plans at present to revisit a complex issue that has been directly addressed, with the help of various student organizations and faculty and in substantial detail, twice in recent years,” he wrote. “Recommendations from those deliberations are published at the ACIR website. In response to our last report, the president and Board adopted a number of other recommendations that help position Duke as a leader in meeting the challenge of climate change.”  

Baxter also wrote that “the ACIR is always open to a new approach, even for the same request,” and referenced a virtual public forum hosted in November 2021 in which the ACIR engaged with graduate groups concerning climate-related issues. 

“In order to be effective, the petitioners should prepare a detailed memo explaining how circumstances might have changed since the last recommendation in 2019 and why the situation should be treated differently this time,” he wrote.

However, McDonald and Saks feel that the ACIR and Duke’s administration has not acted urgently enough in regards to climate change. 

“We're really looking to turn to more aggressive tactics to really show to the Duke administration that there's no support for them to continue dragging their feet on divestment, and also that there are stronger legal and financial reasons for them changing as well. So we hope to show that in the coming weeks as we go to the next phase of our campaign,” McDonald said.

Sevana Wenn profile
Sevana Wenn | Features Managing Editor

Sevana Wenn is a Trinity sophomore and features managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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