Student groups hold Alumni Weekend protest calling for divestment, sustainable campus infrastructure

Student groups Duke Climate Coalition and Our Urban Future staged a protest Saturday to demand greater transparency from University administration on social and climate justice issues.

Primary demands of the groups included that Duke divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, stop receiving research funding from the fossil fuel industry and improve the sustainability of campus infrastructure.

“Duke is saying that they want to be an institution that’s a leader in the climate crisis and is taking bold action against climate change, and we want to see them follow that both in words and in action by divesting from fossil fuels,” said first-year Fisher Mallon, incoming DCC co-president.

Students framed the protest as an Alumni Weekend Day of Action, hoping to make use of the increased traffic on campus to bring attention to their grievances in the broader Duke community.

“We want to raise awareness among alumni, have them sign onto our pledge … which says that they won’t donate until Duke divests from fossil fuels,” senior and DCC co-president Abby Saks said.

Saks also noted that many alumni were on campus during the University’s previous experiences with divestment, including Duke’s divestment from Dow Chemical Company in 1969 during the Vietnam War, its 1986 divestment from South African companies during apartheid and its 2008 divestment from Sudanese companies amidst human rights violations in Darfur.

“We wanted to sort of tug on the heartstrings [of alumni] and raise awareness that students are here and that they care about this issue and that Duke admin is really just turning a blind eye in the same way that they were doing back in the ‘80s,” Saks said.

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The demonstration was originally co-sponsored by a number of other student groups, though many pulled out of the event after representatives from Duke Event Services reached out to organizers Friday morning to inform them that the event was not sanctioned by the University.

Anna Lehnen, director of Student Involvement & Leadership, explained that student organization events must be registered in Duke Groups “five business days in advance” and must also have “a confirmed registration for the space,” according to Student Organization Policies.

“Failure to comply with the information outlined above may result in disciplinary action,” Lehnen wrote in an email obtained by The Chronicle, which could include “probation, limiting access to spaces and resources or derecognition of the student organization.”

The students first gathered in front of the Allen Building around 11:30 a.m., many holding hand-painted signs with phrases like “commit to the climate” and “big oil back off.” They moved to the lawn in front of the Duke Chapel around noon, where student organization leaders and members spoke to the crowd through a megaphone.

DCC spokespeople first laid out their organization’s grievances, which centered largely around the issue of divestment. The Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility recently released a report in February that reaffirmed its stance that Duke should not divest from fossil fuels. The report provoked indignation from the DCC, which felt its concerns had not been taken seriously by the advisory body.

Saks noted that the committee made the results of scientific studies appear “more ambiguous about the effects of divestment than they actually are.” She also felt that the committee ignored many of the studies that DCC included in their December 2022 literature review, which she called a “blatant distortion of the facts.”

DCC also advocated for Duke to stop accepting research funding from fossil fuel corporations, referencing a report it published in December that found the University received $24 million in research grants from organizations and individuals tied to the fossil fuel industry, including ExxonMobil, BP and Shell.

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Our Urban Future, a student group focused on promoting sustainable urban development and urban studies programs on campus, expressed their disappointment in Duke’s inaccessible transportation services for students.

“Since the [COVID-19] pandemic, Duke has significantly diminished the amount of auto-alternative methods of getting around campus,” said senior Zoe Tishaev, OUF activism officer.

Tishaev referenced a bikeshare program and the C-3 bus route from East Campus to Science Drive that were both discontinued during the pandemic and have yet to be reinstated. She also commented on the changes to the C-1 bus route's operations, explaining that buses used to run after midnight and on weekends and saying the changes have made the service less convenient for students.

Tishaev was disappointed by the recent construction on West Campus, which involved renovations to the Duke Chapel circle that eliminated curb cuts, making Abele Quad less accessible for those in wheelchairs or using bikes and scooters.

“We’re demanding that Duke invest in cyclist infrastructure, pedestrian infrastructure and make campus accessible so people have more options to get around campus without having to drive,” she said. 

Tishaev added that OUF has also urged Duke to reinstate the Bull City Connector, a bus that used to run from West Campus to downtown Durham. Multiple additional demands are outlined in a petition OUF promoted at the event.

Several alumni joined the protest, showing support for a new generation of sustainable-minded Duke students.

“I think for a lot of us, our love for Duke University helps inform our pressure on Duke University for divestment,” said Joy Reeves, Trinity ‘22 and current graduate student in the Nicholas School of the Environment. “[W]e have the resources, brilliant minds, economists, finance experts and students to make divestment happen, and the fact that it hasn’t happened is an insult to the Climate Commitment.”

Protesters marched from Abele Quad to the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center at 12:15 p.m., chanting along the way.

“When the planet we need is under attack, what do we do? Stand up; fight back!” the demonstrators chanted. “This is what democracy looks like!”

Students handed out “Divest Duke” stickers and flyers to alumni throughout their protest at Karsh, as well as later in the afternoon on Science Drive and the Bryan Center Plaza. 

Zoe Kolenovsky profile
Zoe Kolenovsky | News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and news editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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