It’s a shame: Faculty Senate refuses to support fossil fuel divestment resolution

May 29, 2020, 11:57 a.m.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the Faculty Senate would refuse to endorse the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) resolution requesting that Stanford divest from fossil fuel companies. But what was surprising were many of the arguments my fellow Senators used in urging us not to endorse. Let us be clear on what voting to endorse would have meant — it would have meant that the Senate would have conveyed its sense that the ASSU resolution was worthy of support. Such a “sense of the Senate” has no binding power  — Stanford trustees would be free to act as they wish, but they would know the sentiment of the Faculty Senate and hopefully that might factor into their decision. But from the discussion, one would have thought we were voting to defund the fossil fuel industry. That’s a proposal of its own, but not the one that was before the Faculty Senate yesterday.

I won’t go into each and every argument against the resolution here — suffice it to say that one could well look at any corporate report to stockholders and find the same formula. Such documents always begin by assuring the audience that the corporation is moved by the concerns it has heard about its behavior, that it thanks those who have expressed those concerns and that it has heard them. The rest of the document goes on to first misconstrue and then dismiss all the concerns. That is followed by a report on profits and everyone is supposed to leave the meeting feeling that things are not so bad after all.  And that was yesterday’s script. The problem is that in the case of climate change, the international scientific community has determined that things are very bad indeed, and getting worse every hour of every day.

I have chosen the following examples because they exhibit the worst types of arguments proffered by opponents of the resolution.

First — one senator told us that (although she thanked the students for their concern and passion — and you can use that preface for all the examples below) she herself was concerned that if the Faculty Senate were to endorse the resolution, Stanford might be “lampooned” for taking this stance by other universities.  Apparently that was a risk lesser institutions like Harvard and Oxford and the University of California — all peer institutions who have agreed to divest from fossil fuels — were ready to take, but maybe Stanford’s reputation is more fragile.  This reasoning seemed odd to me, because it runs against exactly what I was taught as a child and what I think we as parents teach our children — that one should do what one thinks is morally and ethically right, regardless of what others might think of you.  

Second, and related — a senator began his speech by drawing attention to the fact he “was evil”: he held up his cell phone and said “I have a cell phone and look, it has a battery….I own that gas guzzler in the driveway … yes, I am ‘evil’.”   At most universities, we teach that sarcasm is not something one uses in place of a rational argument.  But more than this, this senator was showing his utter disrespect for the entire ASSU and all the supporters of the resolution. He uttered these words feeling complete impunity because he had read the room — correctly, as it turns out.  One of the arguments he eventually made was that the oil industry had funded many fellowships for low-income students.  I’ll get to the issue of oil industry beneficence later, but this is a common pseudo-argument, “pseudo” because it had nothing at all to do with the issue at hand.

Third were the familiar, “well why don’t we stop driving cars and eating beef?” and “isn’t it hypocritical to ride on an airplane and then protest fossil fuels?” We have heard these specious arguments a million times before, here is what we who support divestment say — sure, stop driving your car and eating beef if that is your way of acting individually in a socially responsible manner.  But the matter at hand is a collective act — it is an act of solidarity with organized global opposition to fossil fuels that has proven weight and effect. 

In terms of airplanes — in our present world this is the means of transportation around which our lives are organized.  To be an effective advocate, one uses the best available means of traveling.  These means were invented long before we knew the damage they could do. Now that we do know that fossil fuel dependency is killing the planet, our job now is to change those means and curtail that damage. This is called progressivism. And some enlightened university has set up a School for Sustainability based on those premises. I imagine our colleagues there will take airplanes once in a while. Are they hypocrites? There is nothing at all hypocritical about that.  If you want an example of actual hypocrisy, read on.

Fourth, and finally — speaking of research, many senators said that while they commended the students, and they themselves were concerned, to divest would send a very bad signal to companies that they worked with. These companies, these senators said, were “good” — they supported good research (i.e., theirs and their students’) and that if they heard that Stanford had divested, they might well stop funding the research that was helping the world.

At this point it one might puzzle over people claiming as “good” companies that might retaliate against researchers because they worked at a school that divested.

This is more than frightening. This is precisely what Hannah Arendt meant by the “banality of evil,” by which she meant a state in a society where people had reneged on their moral responsibility to reflect on what they were doing, a society where contradictions are not seen as contradictions, where damage is not damage and where those who think differently are lampooned as lunatics.

But even worse, in making this argument they proved that they knew these funders were not committed to unbiased and objective research — they knew this because they feared that these companies might retaliate against them for even being at an institution that had divested.  And hence they trotted out praise for their funders and cast them as enlightened benefactors.

Ultimately, I am not interested in calling people evil. I am interested in seeing how people behave, how they act.  If someone is beating me over the head with a club, the first thing I think about is getting them to stop it. The issue of their motivations or moral content can be adjudicated later. But a more accurate and germane analogy is this — when I see companies polluting the environment, and making it unlivable for future generations, when I see the flora and fauna of the earth perishing because the climate is toxic, I don’t care about the amount of funding those who are helping to produce this awful condition give researchers and students — I care more about their corporate behavior rendering the issue of our future moot.

Divestment is not a boycott — nothing prevents these researchers and students from collaborating with these entities and if they find a solution to climate change, God bless them.  But in the meanwhile, why should we benefit from bad practices by maintaining our investment in them?  If the total proportion of Stanford’s portfolio invested in fossil fuel is no more than 1%, then why do we so ardently hang on to that 1%?

Here is the most alarming thing: what became clear at yesterday’s meeting was that it is not the money sitting in Stanford investments that many (but not all) of opponents of the resolution were concerned with.  It was the money they might lose from a displeased funder of their own research — they were not willing to be collateral damage in this matter. 

The trustees are fiduciaries of the University. But we are all fiduciaries of the Earth. It is not ours — we inherited it as a legacy. What legacy are we passing on to our successors?

I sincerely commend the ASSU and all who bravely and hopefully and wisely presented us with an ethical, reasonable and humane document. I, for one, am enormously proud of you, and I and the 400 other faculty who signed a petition in 2014 for divestment, stand with you, because this fight will go on, as our lives depend on it.

— David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of Comparative Literature

  • For
    • Stephen Galli
    • Adrian Daub
    • Blakey Vermeule
    • David Spiegel
    • David Palumbo-Liu
    • Ge Wang
    • Christopher Piech
    • Christine Min Wotipka
    • Kathryn Starkey
    • Hazel Markus
    • Mehran Sahami
  • Against
    • Matthew Bogyo
    • Neil Malhotra
    • Andrew Fire
    • Bruce Cain
    • Allison Okamura
    • Copi Goda
    • David Goldhaber-Gordon
    • Jeremy Bulow
    • Jay Mitchell
    • Judith Goldstein
    • Michael Ostrovsky
    • John Etchemendy
    • Andrea Goldsmith
    • Juan Santiago
    • Mary Beth Mudgett
    • Sharon Long
    • Parviz Moin
    • Tor Raubenheimer
    • Dustin Schroeder
    • Jennifer Burns
    • Mark Horowitz
    • Eric Sibley
    • Lisa Blaydes
    • Sheri Sheppard
    • Aaron Straight
    • Phil Pizzo
    • Peter DeMarzo
    • Sarah Billington
  • Abstain
    • Jeremy Weinstein
    • Robert Malenka
    • Ravi Vakil
    • Dan Edelstein
    • Karen Casciotto
    • Risa Wechsler

Contact David Palumbo-Liu at palboliu ‘at’

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