Last September, the University of California system’s investment managers decided to divest their $13.4 billion endowment and begin working on divesting their $70 billion pension from the fossil fuel industry. Essentially, this means that the school system will stop investing into the fossil fuel industry for a return on investment by selling its assets: “directly and indirectly managed funds, private and public, and stocks and bonds.”
Despite its attempt to disregard the six years of student activism that preceded divestment by citing the financial risk of holding on to fossil fuel assets — an argument the activists themselves brought to attention — it was an incredible step for the UC system to be on the right side of history — again. A side NC State has yet to step onto.
It seems near-inconceivable that any school system would have stood by as South Africa maintained a reprehensible system of racial segregation, but until students stood up and pushed back against idle administrators, that was the case. Due to the so-called apolitical nature of the investors, no higher education administrator in America seemed to think twice about investing billions in business and industries that operated or traded with South Africa.
Students appalled by apartheid — and influenced by the civil rights movement — recognized how their own institutions enabled racial segregation in South Africa. Then, they got to work. There were a few campaigns prior to the UC system at Michigan State University, Columbia University, Smith College, and Harvard University, but the 1985 sit-in brought divestment to the forefront of national conversation.
Chris A. Smith, who wrote an article on the history of divestment at UC, said, “It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.”
Eventually, the sit-ins led to the arrest of 158 protestors. In response, over 10,000 students boycotted class the next day. However, the university maintained the position that investment was and should not be political, and that where there was commerce, it should participate — a similar sentiment to what we student activists hear today.
“Apartheid kills while UC counts its dollar bills” was a popular chant at the resulting protests. After the escalation into riots over a shantytown protest in 1986 involving severe police brutality, the school faced criticism from the local government, yet the semester ended without resolution. However, in the summer, the school system decided to divest its $3.1 billion of holdings in businesses operating in South Africa, the largest of any school system so far.
Soon after, the state of California divested more than $11 billion in protest of apartheid, businesses began to pull out of South Africa, and eventually, the U.S. imposed sanctions leading to the end of apartheid.
It is important to note that apartheid did not end because of student activists at UC system schools. However, their activism brought national American attention to the injustices occurring in South Africa, meriting recognition and thanks from Nelson Mandela to the students and faculty who fought for divestment. I believe that it is safe to say that UC students were on the right side of history.
What about the UNC school system? Students at UNC-Chapel Hill protesting apartheid succeeded in 1987 when the institution decided to divest from South Africa in October, becoming one of 128 institutions to do so. As far as I can tell, NC State had one protest march organized with student government in 1987, according to a Technician article on the history of campus activism.
Last year, it was revealed that NC State has $43 million invested in the fossil fuel industry. Personally, I and many other students at NC State see this as morally reprehensible. As a STEM school and land-grant institution that recognizes the reality and challenge of human-caused climate change, our administrators stand by while we invest in the industry that contributes the most to climate change and damages the state of North Carolina.
Those in charge of investment repeat the antiquated points spouted in the 1980s: divestment is political, and if we bend to political activists, it will undermine the apolitical nature of investment. To this I ask, is ignoring the already-occurring climate crisis not a political act?
If NC State is fulfilling its values, how is it then that our administrators fail to stand up to the company that manages our endowment and say: As an institution that stands with science and the next generation, isn’t it necessary that we are not investing in industries that are threatening the very planet that they will inherit from us? Instead, we will be on the right side of history, where we have not been in the past, and invest in the health of our people, our state, and our world.
Caleb Bartholomew is a fourth-year student majoring in Creative Writing at NC State, as well as a member of the Climate Reality Project.