Maura Donnelly / Gavel Media

Students Rally for Rights on the Heights

Student members of Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC) organized the Rights on the Heights rally last Thursday night on the academic quad to voice their opposition to the administration’s decision not to divest the university endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

Following the rally, students delivered a letter to University President Fr. William Leahy and wrote messages in chalk on the sidewalk and road in front of his office.

After the passage of an Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) resolution that called for divestment of the university endowment from the fossil fuel industry within the next five years, members of CJBC who reached out to administrators were informed that the university will not divest from fossil fuels.

According to CJBC member Matthew Barad, MCAS '19, students chose to rally on the last day of classes “because Boston College’s administration has continuously and unapologetically failed to respect students’ rights on a variety of fronts.”

In addition to the university’s position on divestment from fossil fuels, students objected to the administration’s response to a number of other events this year, including: failure to recognize the Boston College Graduate Employees Union-UAW after graduate student workers voted in favor of union representation, the Students for Sexual Health (SSH) referendum, and instances of racism.  

The rally, which was attended by a few dozen undergraduate and graduate students, took place at the same time as the annual Modstock concert. The decision to invite rapper B.o.B. to headline the concert was similarly met with opposition by many members of the BC community, including students who objected to B.o.B.'s history of denying the Holocaust and spreading conspiracy theories.

According to student speakers who support divestment from fossil fuel companies, the strongest argument for divestment pertains to ethics.

The first speaker, graduate student Jamie Mazareas, highlighted his experience of witnessing the protests against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where unarmed protesters were met with water hoses and tear gas from local law enforcement in 2016.

“Boston College is profiting off the companies that are financing these activities, and that is something that should trouble all of us,” said Mazareas.

Mazareas noted that information about the investments made by the university endowment is not public, with the exception of investments made by the Boston College Investment Club.

The Investment Club, which manages a fund of approximately $485,000 out of the total university endowment of $2.4 billion, is invested in several companies that are involved in the fossil fuel industry, including C&J Energy Services Inc., Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, and Flotek. Students have also criticized investments in Wells Fargo, which is involved in financing the private prison system and the gun industry.

Additionally, Nicholas Stubblefield, MCAS '20, a senator in the UGBC Student Assembly who co-sponsored the “Resolution Concerning Divestment,” connected fossil fuel divestment with the Jesuit and Catholic mission of the university.

In particular, Stubblefield stated that the resolution drew a substantial part of its argument for divestment from Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which calls for protection of the Earth and increased sustainability.

CJBC member Aaron Salzman, MCAS '20, said that as a Catholic university, BC is required to follow the catechism, which states that all economic activity should be “ordered first of all to the service of persons.”

“[Economic activity] is not primarily motivated toward profit and secondarily toward human beings, it is primarily toward the good of human beings,” said Salzman. “If we aren’t engaging our economic activities for the good of human beings, then we shouldn’t be engaging in economic activities at all.”

While BC has ethical guidelines in place for endowment investments, past statements indicate that the university does not consider involvement in the fossil fuel industry problematic.

“[Divestment] would be done if there is a clear compelling case that shows a particular company is doing something unethical,” university spokesman Jack Dunn told The Gavel in 2015. “We do not think that companies that are engaged in energy production are engaged in unethical conduct.”

Additionally, students responded to statements they had received from university administrators, who described fossil fuel divestment as ineffective.

CJBC member Kayla Lawlor, MCAS '20, shared an email she had received from Chief Investment Officer John Zona in response to her request to begin a dialogue with administrators and the Board of Trustees about divestment.

In the response, Zona stated that the university will not divest from fossil fuels because “it is not an effective way to address climate change.” Instead, the university has decided to focus its attention on sustainability efforts to reduce the university’s carbon footprint. They also plan to implement educational programs that will prepare students to become leaders in environmental policy.

Lawlor, however, maintained that remaining invested in fossil fuel companies ultimately maintains market confidence in the fossil fuel industry and fails to generate consumer demand for renewable energy sources.

“An academic university supposedly tackling sustainability should understand the effectiveness of divestment, and understand that taking active steps to reduce energy consumption does nothing if dirty energy production is allowed to continue,” said Lawlor. “Boston College creates the problems it claims to be solving, then praises itself for its efforts.”

Mazareas also argued that student divestment movements have proven successful in the past, in contrast to the administration’s statement that divestment would be ineffective.

In particular, Mazareas described how college students at the University of California Berkeley in the 1980s successfully pressured their university administration into divesting from South African businesses during the Apartheid. This divestment movement spread to other universities, including BC, which divested its investments in companies that were upholding the Apartheid regime in South Africa in 1985.

Mazareas read aloud a quote from Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and a leader in the anti-Apartheid movement, which highlighted the importance of student activism in contributing to ending Apartheid. 

In this quote, Tutu expressed “words of encouragement for student divestment efforts” and acknowledged that “it was students who played a pioneering role in advocating equality for South Africa and promoting corporate and ethical responsibility to end the complicity in Apartheid.”

Another CJBC member, Catherine McLaughlin, MCAS '21, read aloud a few sentences from letters that individual members of CJBC have sent to Fr. Leahy during this past academic year. These letters were written by herself, Matthew Barad, MCAS '19, Zachary Contini, MCAS '21, Aaron Salzman, MCAS '20, Blake Harvey, MCAS '18, and Kyle Rosenthal, MCAS '21.

According to McLaughlin, none of these students received an answer, which she said speaks to a larger problem about the relationship between students and the BC administration.

“Fr. Leahy’s silence has said that because he disagrees with our approach to better this campus, we don’t have the right to try,” said McLaughlin. “His silence doesn’t tell us that he disagrees with our mission, but that our mission doesn’t matter and that we don’t have a right to speak out or to speak up.”

After the rally was over, several students visited Fr. Leahy's office to deliver a letter that listed several student demands on a variety of issues student activists have been working towards in the past year.

Students also left messages in chalk on the sidewalk and road in front of Fr. Leahy’s office. These messages criticized university policy and called for change on a number of issues.

Although two students were detained by the Boston College Police Department (BCPD) back in March for writing similar criticisms in chalk on campus sidewalks, BCPD and Newton police officers who were present at the scene asked only that the students stay out of the road.

One of the students informed The Gavel that they had contacted the city of Newton and confirmed that there are no laws or regulations against writing in chalk on the sidewalk or on the road in front of the office, which is considered public property.

I’m a future elementary teacher who enjoys dabbling in news coverage of politics and social issues on the side.