Chancellor Jimmy Cheek: the divestment campaign is headed your way.

Since the divestment campaign arrived at UT in fall 2012, its members have spent hours petitioning, presenting and protesting across campus to convince administration to divest the university's endowment from fossil fuels.

Students Jake Rainey, David Hayes, Jessica Murphy and Kristen Collins brought the idea of divesting back as a souvenir from an Atlanta trip.

They had gone to see author and environmental journalist Bill McKibben speak on climate change as part of his "Do the Math" tour, during which McKibben proposed that college students should return to their schools and work toward divestment.

Since then, Rainey, a senior in journalism and electronic media, said that "this movement has been building pretty quickly."

After Hayes, Collins and fellow student Daniel Lawhon found the "right people" to talk to about UT's endowment, they developed a referendum stating the student body supported the mission to divest from fossil fuels. The referendum was passed on the 2013 SGA election ballots and the same referendum was later approved in SGA Senate.

Erica Davis, sophomore in sociology, first became interested in the campaign around the time the referendum passed and became significantly involved last fall.

"I'm involved with the divestment campaign in order to use my discontent and anger with the current system, as well as my optimism about the potential of climate justice, to motivate positive change," Davis said. "I want to be able to honestly tell my grandchildren one day that I did everything in my power to try to secure a better world for them, and that I didn't let opposition from those with the most power deter me in my efforts.

"This Earth is something worth fighting for, and the battle starts right here at UT."

Despite support from the student body, the campaign received a letter from the Board of Trustees in December 2013 rejecting divestment. In response, the group presented a letter to Charles "Butch" Peccolo, UT's chief financial officer, rejecting the administration's dismissal and asking for further consideration.

This presentation was followed by a "study-in" where more than 30 students occupied the CFO's office lobby. The protesters sat quietly and did homework for over an hour, a demonstration Rainey called the campaign's most effective action yet.

Davis said she believes the administration's rejection has been the largest effect on the campaign, helping the students to learn how to structure and implement their next plan of action.

Recently, Davis attended a conference in San Francisco where she learned that when universities reject students' divestment proposals, they are actually "fueling students' passion for this movement and encouraging them to work together in an alliance against climate change and the fossil fuel industry," she said.

However, Peccolo responded to the campaign's second letter with another rejection, telling the campaign if they intended to push their mission further, they would need to speak to Cheek himself.

In their next act of protest, campaign members will paint the Rock tonight before meeting with Cheek next Wednesday, April 16, to present their case.

"We intend to show Cheek how much our students support this movement," Rainey said. "We want to show him that students actually do care where our money is being spent, and that we don't want it destroying the one and only planet that we inhabit."

Davis said she has seen the campaign grow and is "beyond excited" to see what action the group might go on to create.

"It is entirely antithetical to the values of higher education for our university to actively fund the destruction of the planet that we, as students, will inherit — and we are morally obliged to fight this destruction," Davis said. "Divestment is a significant step toward climate justice.

"Additionally, the fossil fuel industry destroys local communities in the Knoxville area, making the issue relevant to UT students."

Davis said she has researched the local impacts of these damages personally.

"I've spent time researching the effects of social values and mountaintop removal coal mining in Campbell and Claiborne Counties, within a short drive from campus," she said. "It destroys the local residents' livelihoods.

"No one is untouched by the effects of climate change, and so everyone should care about it."

In Rainey's opinion, if UT does not divest, it could appear as an "inferior" institution in hindsight.

"Look at the civil rights movement," he said." Do we want to be like the University of Georgia or Ole Miss that had to be forced by federal courts to desegregate? Do we want to be an institution that supports backwards thinking of any type? In my opinion, the answer is no."

 

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