Divest Dartmouth charts eight-year journey to College’s sustainability announcement

Divest Dartmouth featured three separate generations of climate justice activists before the College formally announced its plans to divest from fossil fuels.

by Taylor Haber | 10/19/21 5:15am

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by Oliver De Jonghe / The Dartmouth Staff

When Morgan Curtis ’14 learned Dartmouth had formally announced on Oct. 8 its plans to divest its remaining fossil fuel holdings, she cried. 

Curtis, a founding member of Divest Dartmouth, had organized for divestment for years. But like all other members of the campaign, she was given no indication that the College would be announcing its intention to divest, she said. 

When the news broke, the Divest Dartmouth community erupted in celebration. According to co-founder Leehi Yona ’16, former and current members exchanged excited phone calls, and the campaign’s GroupMe — filled with organizers both past and present — blew up with celebratory messages. Curtis called the news “amazing.” For countless other members of Divest Dartmouth, the announcement was the result of years of continued progress, Yona said. 

The First Generation: 2012-2016

Yona co-founded Divest Dartmouth in the fall of 2012 with Curtis. Initial club meetings consisted of roughly three people in Robinson Hall, Yona said. In fact, she added, the campaign’s early days faced “a lot of resistance,” since discussions around climate change were controversial in the early 2010s. 

“The conversations at the time were not about climate change being a systemic issue,” Yona said. “They were very much focused on individual actions that students could take or that we could take on campus.”

Over Yona’s four years at Dartmouth, campus discourse on climate action changed. According to Yona, some Divest Dartmouth members are reluctant to credit their campaign with facilitating the shift — she pointed to the Paris Climate Agreement, adopted in late 2015, as an alternative turning point  — but the organization did score some prominent victories. For instance, in May 2016, Divest Dartmouth staged the Big Green Rally — the largest climate rally in New Hampshire state history at the time. 

The Second Generation: 2016-2019

After the club’s founders graduated, the next generation of Divest Dartmouth organizers faced numerous setbacks. In April 2016, the College released an independent report on the potential effects of divestment, spearheaded by engineering professor Mark Borsuk. 

The report — which, according to the document itself, had been motivated by Divest Dartmouth— evaluated four different action levels: not divesting at all, incremental divestment, the “Divest Dartmouth” approach, which involved removing the 200 largest fossil fuel companies from the endowment, and a complete withdrawal.  

According to Borsuk, while the 37-page report did not issue a formal recommendation, its financial and ethical analyses found “complete withdrawal” to be the most favorable option of the four.

“[College administration and the Board of Trustees] asked us not to make a recommendation — we didn’t want to make a recommendation, in part, because like any decision, it’s always a combination of objective information and subjective preferences,” Borsuk said. “That said, it would be hard to imagine a set of priorities for which the [full] divestment option wouldn’t be the most preferred.”

Following the publication of the “Borsuk Report,” Divest Dartmouth felt it finally had empirical evidence from the College supporting its cause, Catherine Rocchi ’19 said.

“The report is basically ‘unequivocally, Dartmouth should divest’ — [that’s] what I took from that report, even if it didn’t say as much,” she said. “Any rational reader of this report would think ‘okay, clearly divestment is the best decision for the College to make, according to all of these metrics.’”

On the heels of the Borsuk Report’s publication in April and the Big Green Rally in May, Rocchi said the Divest Dartmouth team poured hours of work into their cause. 

On Sept. 16, 2016, the Divest Dartmouth leadership held a meeting with College President Phil Hanlon alongside former President of the Board of Trustees Bill Helman and fellow Board member Rick Kimball to discuss divestment. Some of the Divest Dartmouth team, according to Rocchi, spent those early autumn weeks foregoing school work to focus solely on preparing for the meeting.

The results, Rochi noted, were underwhelming. 

“They were not listening to us,” she said. 

Divest Dartmouth leaders have critiqued what they see as the administration for dragging its feet, Yona said. She explained that, from the group’s perspective, the College seems to wait until senior organizers graduate, hoping the campaign will then lose traction.

“If you look historically, the administration always responded to student pressure by stalling and then, conveniently, graduation was right around the corner,” Yona said.

According to a transcript from the meeting, President Hanlon affirmed that as a research institution, the College’s academic work in sustainability contributed more towards supporting the future of energy than divestment would.

“... I felt that, [in response to] every single argument they presented, we were very well-equipped to answer in an intellectually honest way,” Rocchi said. “But rather than engaging in a discourse with us, it seemed like they would just say something different.”

A year after the meeting — with no tangible progress toward divestment — Megan Larkin ’19 said she was starting to feel burnt out.

“The campaign went on eight years, and given the reports that came out, we thought, ‘that’s pretty irrefutable evidence that the College needs to divest — it’s very straightforward,’” Larkin said. “But the fact that they were dragging their feet for eight years and giving us the same canned responses was very discouraging.” 

The Third Generation: 2019-Present

The current generation of Divest Dartmouth inherited the group at a time when progress was stagnating, according to current group leader Edel Galgon ’22. However, she explained that Divest Dartmouth had been gaining momentum as current leadership assumed office — the campaign staged a 60-person student-faculty dinner and met with Hanlon in 2019 — but organizational progress was cut short by the onset of the pandemic. 

When students moved from Hanover to their homes, Divest Dartmouth moved from weekly in-person campaign meetings to termly Zoom meetings — a transition in the campaign’s history Galgon described as a “low point.”

Despite the various barriers, Divest Dartmouth’s efforts paid off, culminating in the College’s Oct. 8 sustainability announcement. Yona said the campaign's longevity is a testament of students’ commitment to the cause.

“It’s a testament to the power of social movements and of community organizing,” she added. “I think it’s a testament to the community we created. The fact that Friday, I was still getting phone calls from people who I haven’t spoken to in years, from different classes at Dartmouth, speaks to how much of a strong community it really was, and is.”

Current Divest Dartmouth leaders, Connie Lu ’22 and Galgon said that they were grateful to see the reactions of previous group members and intend to use the movement’s current momentum to chart a host of new sustainability goals.

“There definitely need to be a lot of strategic and bigger-picture conversations about where we want to go now and what to do,” Lu said. “That may lead to a period of less certainty on where the organization is headed, but in a world where we so rarely get good news, having something like this to hold onto is really energizing and encouraging for us.”

Regardless of Divest Dartmouth’s specific future focus, Galgon believes its broader principles of climate justice will shape the campaign well into the future.

“The goals of Divest Dartmouth as a club are to educate students about climate justice and the role that people can play as advocates, and I think that will always continue to be relevant.”

Correction appended (Oct. 20, 2021): A previous version of this article stated that Divest Dartmouth attended an inter-collegiate divestment conference in 2019. In fact, the conference was hosted by Divest Dartmouth and occurred in April 2018.

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