Divestment About Spectacle, Not Success

Sam Chapman

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On March 15, 1986, Whitman’s Board of Trustees voted on a divestment proposal for the first time. Students and faculty had both submitted resolutions urging the Board to remove companies from the college’s portfolio that did business in apartheid-ridden South Africa; student activists went so far as to build a shantytown on the Memorial lawn. Unfortunately, the campaign was a failure: The Board, believing that it would be easier to pressure for change if they remained part-owners, adopted a set of token compromises that left investments untouched.

Twenty-five years later, Whitman is once again whispering about divestment. Dirty energy is now the topic of concern, and members of the campaign were offered eight minutes of the trustees’ attention at their recent meeting––something we’re evidently supposed to see as progress. I am not a pessimist, so when I say history is going to repeat itself, it’s with an eye to how we can succeed where our sisters and brothers of ’86 failed: Even if we fail to achieve our political goals, we can make our divestment campaign count.

Divestment, in this context, refers to a specific cause recently taken up by college activists across the country, spearheaded as usual by the folks at Bill McKibben’s 350.org. As in ’86, the campaign faces an uphill battle. Whitman’s team must build from the bottom up, without the administrative support some other schools (such as Sterling College) have enjoyed. We must convince trustees known for their hostility to what they view as “passing fads.” A February 1986 editorial in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin blasted the board for putting finances before both morality and the liberal arts, and I see no reason to believe they have changed: After all, they’re still businesspeople.

So, if we take for granted that we will not achieve divestment, the question becomes this: How can a campaign succeed even when it fails? To answer it, we must be aware of a common misconception about divestment: Its purpose is not to harm the energy companies’ bottom lines. The entire percentage of capital that the major oil, gas and coal companies derive from academic investment portfolios equals about one tenth of one percent of their total profits. Therefore, the value lies not in victory, but in what happens when people notice you’re fighting.

The purpose of divestment is what can be gained from the fight itself. Think of a political candidate who runs, knowing he has no chance, so that he can shed light on an overlooked issue. Think of parents who sue the company whose product injured their child, not because they want the settlement, but so that they can tell the media about a critical safety concern going unaddressed.

The goal is not necessarily to make a difference, but to make noise––to demonstrate to the country that the new generation is ready to act. If divestment occurred, all it would show was that a small group of rich people had decided to become less culpable for a problem caused by small groups of rich people. If, however, the struggles of students and faculty gain national attention, if the attention is focused on campuses across the country, if we make it clear that we scholars are as intelligent as we claim by taking a stand against the molestation of the planet Earth, then our divestment effort has succeeded.

Nobody who’s read this column before will be surprised that I was one of the 50 or so students who crammed Memorial Hall on Jan. 29. I chanted along with the crowd, and followed the four student representatives to Peter Harvey’s office, although I knew that what went on in that smoke-filled room wouldn’t matter in the end. What matters is that we desecrated the sanctity of Mem’s silence. We meant to look loud, present and aware, to make it clear that no matter what the treasurer chose, we would win for having fought––for the people look to conflict, and it’s time we gave them one.

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