A group of seventy students was ushered out of the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees meeting Friday. They were singing to demand specific action against climate change: a vote on University divestment from fossil fuel stocks including oil, gas, and coal from Pitt’s $4.3 billion endowment.
In the week leading up to the Trustees meeting, student activists have been occupying the school’s Cathedral of Learning with banners and signs that read “Pitt Funds Climate Violence,” “Hail to Profit” and “We’re Still Here. Ask Us Why.” They’ve been sleeping on the stone floor of the building and leaving only to attend classes.
LISTEN to Student Voices from the Occupation
The students are part of Fossil Free Pitt, a coalition of about 50 clubs advocating for the divestment. Courtney Barasch, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Pittsburgh, has been essentially living in the commons area.
“I’m very devoted,” she said, “I spent five days on this floor. The first night we came, we packed sleeping bags and cots and mattresses and they told us we couldn’t have [them] because it made it look like a campsite, which is basically the University trying to make it look less of what it is, which is an occupation.”
Prem Rajgopal, a 25-year-old sustainable engineering masters student, said the occupation has allowed him and the other student activists to spread awareness for a topic that can be a little wonky and confusing for people. He said divestment makes sense from both a moral and financial standpoint.
“Fossil fuel companies have known about global warming for a long time and have been complicit in the climate crisis,” he said. “And in the long term, we are going to be switching to renewables. That’s the future we have to have or this planet is not going to be able to sustain itself.”
At the meeting, Trustees did not agree to vote on divestment. They did support a commitment for the Pittsburgh campus to become carbon neutral by 2037, to increase building and infrastructure efficiency, and expand renewable energy sources, in an effort to address climate change.
“Addressing climate change is a vital issue for our University, society and future,” said University Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “Pledging to go carbon neutral is a critical next step for the University of Pittsburgh—one that seamlessly aligns with our commitment to drive sustainable innovations and equitable opportunities for all.”
Gallagher said he supports giving students opportunities to share their views on complex issues, like socially responsible investing.
Rajgopal says while the University is taking steps in the right direction, it’s not enough.
“It’s such a small scale change when we compare it to something like divestment,” he said.
The actions at Pitt are part of a national effort to stop universities from profiting off of climate change. There are fossil free student campaigns at hundreds of universities, and some have been successful. On February 20th, Georgetown University announced it would stop investing in fossil fuel companies. The University of California system did the same last September.
Despite the Pitt Trustees decision to not hold a vote on divestment, protesting students said their occupation at the Cathedral of Learning has still been a success because they’re raising awareness of the issue.
“We’ve have faculty members teach classes and hold office hours here,” Rajgopal said. “One thing that has been really great is community members have been bringing us meals and stopping by after seeing news articles. We’re still spreading the word, still making sure that board members know that this is an issue that matters to the community as a whole.”
Katt Amos, a 20-year-old junior, came to check out the scene after hearing about the student movement in class.
“If this is something that was a big enough deal that they’re staying in Cathy [Cathedral of Learning] like this,” she said as she photographed the petition. “I’m surprised I’d never heard of it.”