Skip to content Skip to footer

Divestment Movement Spurs Existential Crisis in Higher Education

Who will read my research and what, if anything, will it do to improve the lives of the people about whom I write?

I, like all of us, have been hearing about the California drought for months. But as with most issues that are not present outside the window, I became hardened to the front-page stories – showing depleted reservoirs and poverty-stricken families in the Central Valley.

So it wasn’t until I went back to my hometown of Oakland, California, at the beginning of summer that the drought, in all its omnipresence and urgency and sadness, became real to me. I walked through the hills, trodden with brown leaves, falling from trees dying for water that was nowhere to be found. The lake down the street from my house, a usually crowded summer refuge for Oaklanders of all stripes, was empty, closed due to low and hypoxic water.

And then I got on a plane and flew back to Vermont where I attend school at Middlebury College and worked for much of the summer as a research assistant for a professor. I enjoyed my summer immensely and believe the topic I explored – the development of our overworked culture and exploitative labor practices – merits understanding, considering that most of us work, and do so under increasingly all-consuming and precarious conditions.

Between meditative midday gazes at the gorgeous Vermont mountains, however, I felt the weight of all the forces – colonialism, racism, deregulated capitalism and many others, which, over time, have coupled and compounded to create an environment which fosters the virtually unchecked emission of fossil fuel carbon into our atmosphere, causing climate change and the painful California drought. Sprouts of guilt entered my mind as I considered the all the work that I was not and could be doing to have a greater impact on ending climate injustice.

My guilt grew not so much from the belief that academic research is meaningless, but I still asked myself: Who will read my research and what, if anything, will it do to improve the lives of the people about whom I write? Will it end up buried in a library, described by Stanford graduate and activist, Alok Vaid-Menon as, “that haunted house of quotations that hang on the shelves like skeletons”? Skeletons being those, often poor, research participants indeveloping countries who are studied and written about, exploited to earn prestigious publications and awards, but never helped.

These questions stand at the pinnacle of two years of confusion as to the true purpose and impact of higher education. For example, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to live and learn deliberately at a small liberal arts college and believe the education I am receiving will enable me to disrupt the structuresin our society that foster rampant inequality. But with alumni frequently coming from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms to recruit current students, I sometimes question if Middlebury exists solely to perpetuate and concentrate privilege amongst a small group of elite?

These examples are admittedly crude, but reveal some of the complex questions about the role of higher education that I have thus far been unable toanswer. Maybe I am simply sick with that special brand of politically correct existentialism that often overcomes burgeoning adults of exactly my age and position. Perhaps it is vain to call up some universal meaning of higher education, its true answer being, like all great questions one dissects in college:nuanced, multifold, dependent on person and context, unanswerable. And the research that academics create should reasonably be protected from the capitalist notion of utilitarian productivity – who am I to judge the importance of this or that academic project?

But I’m not the only one fraught in a crisis of confusion. President of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, Hunter Rawlings, wrote in a June Washington Post opinion article, “Pick up any paper or magazine, and you’re likely to see a front-page article on college: It costs too much, spawns too much debt, is or isn’t worth it.” Spurred by its paralyzing cost, the hype surrounding the purpose and role of higher education has shed light on a host of other challenges facing the institution: deceptive for-profit universities and online degree machines; a lack of diversity; poor social, emotional and mental health among students; and multi-million dollar endowments which serve to profit private equity fund managers while students take out loans.

And at the same time that higher education is being called upon to assert its identity, its message is becoming increasingly irrelevant and convoluted. In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Georgetown Professor Charles King lamented the tendency of academics to focus on answering minute and seemingly trivial questions, and the sordid state of doctoral programs which, “do a criminally poor job of teaching young scholars to write and speak inmultiple registers – that is, use jargon with their peers if necessary but then explain their findings to a broader audience with equal zeal and effectiveness.” Skeletons their work will likely become.

For all the time I’ve spent thinking about the purpose of higher education, however, I’ve spent equal parts trying not to think about it. To analyze – perhaps even uncover the falsity of – the place in which I live and work is crushing, of Truman Show proportions.

But guilt, I’ve found, is not productive.

Instead I spend much of my time at school is spent organizing for DivestMiddlebury, a student group which advocates for our college to withdraw its investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. I do this work in large part because I am incredibly concerned about climate change and because it is the most meaningful outlet I’ve found through which to grapple with and employ the resources available to me as a student at an elite US college.

For the divestment skeptics who believe I am pushing an environmental agenda at the expense of necessities such as financial aid, let it be clear: The financial argument for divestment is sound, even independent of environmental concerns. The investment literature overwhelmingly shows that fossil fuel-free portfolios have higher risk adjusted returns than those invested in fossil fuel companies, which is understandable, considering the increasing risk of fossil fuel companies’ faulty practices and the imminence of carbon legislation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August that California pension funds lost $5 billion due to investment in fossil fuels. Regardless, what does it say about our administration (as well as those of other colleges and universities) if financial aid is the first item threatened to be cut?

In the past, calls for divestment at Middlebury have centered around the financial reasoning, but my fellow organizers and I have decided to focus less on this argument in the coming year, as it can inevitably feel empty and distant from the true purpose of divestment. I could just as easily lobby Middlebury to divest from Bitcoin with the financial argument. There are bigger issues at hand.

These summer months have allowed us to step back and recontextualize divestment as a more inclusive movement. In this way, we must support fossil fueldivestment not only so we can enjoy some more quality time outdoors, but out of solidarity with frontline communities from the First Nations of Canada tothe people of the Maldives, whose lives have been torn apart by the fossil fuel industry and its consequences.

And because the same powers that be drive the extractive economy as build prisons for profit, promote austerity for control and buy politicians for power, we as DivestMidd stand with the Black liberation movement, anti-austerity activists in Greece, and unfairly demonized immigrants.

I and the other members of DivestMidd have a clear understanding of our values, and the important role of divestment in catalyzing a more just and sustainable world. But what about Middlebury? The college is ultimately independent of us, and indicative of institutions of higher education across the country, Middlebury is most acutely experiencing the crisis of confusion, thus making the issue of divestment so difficult to answer.

If Middlebury is a corporation, then it will work to maximize returns and satisfy shareholders (donors) with new multimillion-dollar athletic facilities and state of the art dorms, Middlebury’s newest of which are to be clad with flat screen TVs.

In contrast, if Middlebury is a haven for “Democracy and Education,” as the title of Vermont native John Dewey’s 1916 book states, then it will, with equal vigor, support political action in the form of divestment from fossil fuels as a form of civic engagement just as valid as that promoted by the esteemed Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship. It is ultimately Middlebury’s decision: corporation or haven of democracy and education?

Or rather, it is up to our new president, the first woman to hold the position in Middlebury’s history, Laurie Patton, and the Middlebury Board of Trustees todecide who and what we are as a college, and thus our role and responsibility on the issue of fossil fuel divestment.

As a consultant Laurie and her team would be wise in employing Dewey, who wrote, “The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” Alas, Dewey’s advice does not so much answer our question as to the role of highereducation as unearth one even deeper to its core. Which is to say that we cannot make sense of higher education without first defining the kind of society we as a people live in and the one we hope to inhabit in the future.

As they stand, many institutions of higher education (Middlebury included) reflect the world as it is, as exemplified by their trend toward corporatism, inaccessibility of opportunity to all but those who can afford the steep price, distance from political action and refusal to engage with the primary challenges and questions of our time.

If this is the kind of society we as a collective humanity have in mind, then so it goes. But if we can find within us the capacity to imagine a more just and sustainable world as I (and my DivestMiddlebury partners) have,

then I implore that we must stake a claim in defining it, however difficult or insufficient our chosen definition may be. For, imbued with some semblance of consciousness and direction as to the kind of society we desire, President Patton and the Board of Trustees, indeed administrators, faculty, staff and students across the country, will be empowered to lead higher education in a direction that not only reflects that society, but shows leadership in shaping it and enables students to serve at its helm.

Thus, although the questions I’ve ended up asking through my work on the divestment campaign have been the exact ones I was hoping to avoid – those regarding the role and purpose of higher education – I am now confident in my answer and equipped with tools that will enable us to begin restoring highereducation. Paraphrasing author William Deresiewicz, in many instances, we need only look to college and university mission statements, if not pared downto empty buzzwords, for direction. For Middlebury, which touts itself as an environmental leader, that means “commitment to integrating environmental stewardship into both our curriculum and our practices on campus”; a call to “engage the world” and “cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community.” If we are to align our investments with our stated values and fully conceive of what it means to be a responsible citizen in the 21st century, nonetheless a leader, then, I believe, our conclusions will naturally lead us todivestment from the dominant fossil fuel companies.

And yet, divestment is about much more than sticking to our mission statement, though valorous, in a puritanical manner. College and university divestment from fossil fuels signals to students that our collective voice, now and post-graduation, can have power in speaking up to the forces that threaten our future. Promoting social and political activism is both valid and necessary in addressing the issues we face and the exploitation of marginalized communities and people of color on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.

Which is not to say that students should be rewarded with divestment just for holding a rally. Many aspects of higher education that administrations have been forced to confront as a result of the divestment campaign should undoubtedly be improved upon, namely transparency and inclusive decision making processes, if colleges and universities are to prepare students to participate in a democratic society. But democracy also holds room for vigorous discussion and critical analysis of all sides of an argument, both of which should certainly not be lost on the topic of divestment.

The fossil fuel companies, however, have been the ones trying to hinder the debate. Through the promotion of disinformation on their own accord and by membership in trade organizations that do so, the fossil fuel industry has worked to diminish the findings and suggestions of university researchers and policy experts who have debated for decades and ultimately built overwhelming consensus around the idea that the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels has resulted in incredibly destructive changes to our climate and must therefore be mitigated immediately. Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes writes, “Why should universities invest in an industry that has deliberately sought to undermine the knowledge that we have produced?” Thus, if the work of academia is to have meaning now, or at some point in the future, we must demand that its place insociety as an authoritative voice on knowledge, be respected. And if our actions are to match the consensus and urgency of the climate crisis, then we must divest from the fossil fuel industry.

If we are to stop fossil fuel companies from manifesting their plans to extract and sell existing reserves of oil, gas and coal that will undoubtedly push the climate beyond the two-degree threshold that would protect us from the most egregious harm, then the power in both academic work and student organizing must be harnessed immediately. People are already losing their homes due to climate change, already thirsty, hungry, dying, choking on an atmosphere that can take no more carbon dioxide emissions

But it is naive to think that climate change can be combated solely by higher education, and so at this point more than ever, academia must engage the public on a larger scope and in new and innovative ways. President Patton has a few suggestions of her own in this regard. In 2014, while serving as Dean of Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Patton led a discussion on public scholarship at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at which she said, “The question of the university in the 21st century is a question of both making knowledge matter in all venues and assuming knowledge matters in all venues,” both readings of which demand engagement with various publics.

In the year ahead I, hope President Patton will heed her own call, and that people of all types will support college and university divestment campaigns so as to help renew the role of higher education in our society and grow a stronger climate movement with the power to take down the fossil fuel industry and bring about a clean energy future and a just economy. So much is at stake.

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?