“Years in the Making”: Rutgers Union Celebrates Fossil Fuel Divestment
University Commitment to Divest Is the Culmination of Student, Faculty, and Community Organizing
For immediate release: March 9, 2021
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT are joining with student allies in celebrating a vote on fossil fuel divestment scheduled for today’s meetings of the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees.
The decision, set in motion last year by a formal request from a broad student coalition, backed by Rutgers unions, will commit the university to cutting financial connections to any company or investment fund whose primary business is in oil, coal, or natural gas, from exploration and extraction to pipelines and transportation.
Divestment will be the culmination of years of efforts by students, faculty, and staff to get Rutgers to take concrete action toward the goal of climate justice, said David Hughes, past president and current treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union representing full-time faculty and graduate workers. “This is seven-and-a-half years in the making,” Hughes said, “and it will give greater strength to the divestment movement at exactly the moment when the new Biden administration is beginning to take up climate change.”
Naomi Klein, the renowned climate justice advocate, author, and Rutgers faculty member holding the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies, viewed divestment as a milestone for the country as a whole.
“This powerful decision by Rutgers University sends an unequivocal market message that the era of fossil fuels is finally coming to an end and that our collective future rests with clean, renewable energy,” Klein said. “Divestment is the necessary first step in an economic transition rooted in racial and environmental justice, a process that must bring good green jobs, as well as safe, renewable energy, to the most impoverished and polluted communities in our state.”
Other national leaders of the climate justice movement echoed Klein’s words. “Rutgers divestment is a big, big deal—after years of hard work from students, faculty, and alumni, the administration is now acknowledging that it makes neither financial nor moral sense to try and profit off the destruction of the climate system,” said Bill McKibben, an author, scholar, and founder of the climate campaign group 350.org. “One of America’s foremost educational institutions is making it clear that it stands with the future.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also highlighted the years of organizing. “The university community at Rutgers has shown that when people come together around an issue like climate sustainability, change is possible,” Weingarten said. “Hopefully the work Rutgers is doing on fossil fuel divestment will set a standard for other institutions. For our universities to truly become institutions of climate mitigation and resiliency, we must also invest in solarizing buildings and other measures that generate clean energy.”
Pressure for divestment began years ago but built in intensity beginning in September 2019, when the Global Climate Strike mobilized some 700 students, faculty, staff, and community members for a rally and march through the streets of New Brunswick. A student coalition came together to formally call on Rutgers to divest from fossil fuel companies. In October 2020, the Rutgers University Student Assembly announced that an overwhelming 90 percent of students voted in a referendum to support fossil fuel divestment and investments in clean energy.
Rutgers AAUP-AFT continued its long advocacy of divestment with a December 2020 Executive Council resolution calling on Rutgers to “immediately begin selling all its holdings in firms that extract, produce, refine, sell, store, or transport oil, gas, or coal.” Earlier in the year, the union played a leading role in advocating for the American Federation of Teachers to become one of the first national unions to endorse the Green New Deal.
In a statement, Students for Environmental Awareness, one of the organizations in the student coalition that brought the divestment request to the trustees and governors, emphasized how this long history of student, faculty, and community organizing led to change. “Investing in fossil fuels is no longer even a defendable fiscal strategy,” the statement reads. “Yet there is still major resistance and a lack of transparency. This shows that no matter how many reusable water bottles Rutgers gives out, there is major work to be done in shifting the nature of this university from acting like a corporation and prioritizing profit over the environment and people.”
Hughes believes that divestment can be a stepping stone toward a broader vision of decarbonization at Rutgers. After the climate strike, the university administration committed to a planning process that Hughes said the union “wants to influence to be as transformative as possible. We want all of Rutgers’ electricity to come from solar panels, installed over parking lots, on roofs, and off campus if necessary.” The university could not only generate its own electricity carbon-free but supply power to cooperatives of residents near its campuses in Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick, Hughes said.
“Having greened its portfolio, Rutgers is now in a position to green its campus,” Hughes concluded. “The university needs to go the full mile now and become a campus driven by renewable energy while supplying affordable, resilient, carbon-free power to vulnerable communities.”