SALT LAKE CITY — During Saturday’s 136th rendition of “The Game” — the annual football rivalry between Harvard and Yale — a group of students and alumni from both schools stormed the field during halftime with banners of varying messages. Some, per the Associated Press, addressed the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighurs and demanded cancellation of Puerto Rican debt. But the main reason for the sit-in at midfield was a call for both schools to divest from fossil fuels, with signs like “This is an emergency” and “Nobody Wins: Yale & Harvard are complicit in climate injustice.”

Both Harvard and Yale invest unreported portions of their endowments — worth a total of $40.9 billion and $29.4 billion, respectively — in fossil fuels, which scientists say contribute to climate change. Some students want that relationship to end.

The protest’s aftermath, including 42 arrests, followed a predictable course: Some, like Harvard student Christopher Colby, a correspondent for “conservative watchdog” news outlet Campus Reform, told Fox News the protest was a waste of time and “empty activism.” Others, like the Harvard Student newspaper’s editorial board, pointed out that protests are disruptive by design and use that disruption to call attention to relevant issues.

Right or wrong, how does one assess the effectiveness of such a protest? Can you dismiss the method, even if it results in changes? And is it likely to breed similar protests on other American campuses? A good place to start is understanding why students and alumni from both schools decided to take over Saturday’s contest, and the history of such protests.

The call for universities to divest from fossil fuels didn’t begin this weekend; it’s a movement that’s grown in size and influence during the past decade, joining a history of American student activism

From the first lunch counter sit-in by four North Carolina A&T students seeking integration in 1960 to the continuing gun control activism of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students following the February 2018 shooting at their school in Parkland, Florida, students have often fought for change in American society. Perhaps the most congruent analog to Saturday’s protest is the mid-1980s divestment campaign targeting companies doing business with South Africa.

In late 1984, South Africa was still under apartheid — the system of institutionalized racial discrimination and segregation that ruled the country from 1948 until the early 1990s — when a global movement to end the regime reached UC Berkeley. Students held sit-ins outside Sproul Hall. Soon, thousands were sitting in and hundreds were camping out. They demanded the university divest from all companies doing business with the South African government. The UC Regents eventually agreed, and in July 1986, they divested $3.1 billion. Nelson Mandela eventually stopped by Oakland to thank Berkeley students for their help. 

A similar student movement asking universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry has accelerated in recent years. Some colleges, like Syracuse and Oregon State, have already committed to full divestment. Others, like Stanford and Columbia, have committed to divest from coal. (The University of Utah rejected such measures in 2016.) The website maintains a list of organizations committed to divest from fossil fuels, with 1,145 current members. Faith-based organizations lead the way with 28%, followed by philanthropic foundations (17%) and educational institutions (15%).

University of Utah won't get rid of fossil-fuel investments

At Harvard, an editorial in The Crimson student newspaper earlier this year supported fossil fuel divestment. A survey of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences also found 67% of members support fossil fuel divestment, with 24% neutral and 9% opposed.

The administration disagrees. In an open letter to the university community in October 2013, then-Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust wrote that climate change presents “one of the world’s most consequential challenges,” but presented five arguments against divestment: First, it could jeopardize the school’s endowment for nonfinancial reasons; second, it could position Harvard as “a political actor rather than an academic institution”; third, limiting investment options could, Gilpin wrote, inhibit the school’s teaching mission; fourth, doing so wouldn’t cripple fossil fuel companies but could diminish Harvard’s influence within them when it comes to pushing pro-climate initiatives; and fifth, it wouldn’t make much sense given Harvard’s reliance on fossil fuels for its everyday energy needs. 

It’s possible Saturday’s protest could galvanize further divestment protests at colleges across the nation, perhaps with similarly disruptive methods. The Crimson even argued for it, saying “the timing and nature of this event exemplify the kind of disruptive protest that will hopefully lead to meaningful institutional change.”

The protest has already energized Brown University. In an article published Monday in The Brown Daily Herald, professor of environmental studies J. Timmons Roberts highlighted the history of student activists awakening “the nation’s conscience” and helping bring about change. And in the realm of climate change, he acknowledged many elite academic institutions have been “dragging their feet.”

But is such a disruption fair to players and fans when it delayed a double-overtime game in a lightless stadium and forced it to conclude in near darkness? The Crimson cited “statements of support” from members of both teams, although some spectators booed the protesters as they took the field.

Fox News contributor Daniel Turner, who heads a nonprofit that advocates for American energy jobs, acknowledged the protests raised awareness, but insisted it wasn’t the kind protesters sought.

“It made most of America aware,” he wrote, “that elites think they get to interrupt your life with their social justice posturing.”

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The Perspective’s Chaya Benyamin argued both for and against protests recently, noting first their ability to bring publicity to marginalized groups; promote solidarity; and, sometimes, produce results. Then she highlighted how protests rarely meet their goals; never do so in isolation; and often sow ideological discord.

To Benyamin’s points, consider how 1963’s March on Washington led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act; on the other hand, consider what has come of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality.

Did Kaepernick bring attention to the number of African-Americans shot during interactions with police? For the most part, yes. Did it also result in sweeping changes to how police departments operate? For the most part, no. And it polarized Americans like few other recent protests have.

Similar friction was evident Saturday, perhaps most clearly in Yale’s official statement. It “firmly” supported the right to free expression, but within “general conditions,” which don’t allow the disruption of university events.

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