Most students at the University of Auckland have no idea that their education provider has millions invested in fossil fuels. Fossil Free UoA would be happy to tell them about it – if the university only gave them the chance, writes member Ben Martelli.
Early in the morning a couple of Thursdays ago I and other members of Fossil Free University of Auckland dropped an 8 metre banner from the third floor of the general library. “YOUR UNI IS FUNDING CLIMATE CHANGE” it read. We were protesting Vice Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon’s continued refusal to call on the university foundation to divest from coal, oil and gas companies.
Our banner flew peacefully and proud, informing students of what our institution is complicit in. At its top, Fossil Free members sat with the banner secured to their bodies. We made hay while our banner was shining, taking the time to study amidst the other library patrons also preparing for exams. No one was disconcerted, no students complained.
Until the security manager came along.
Not the regular security dudes, mind you. They saw and shrugged. Perhaps they understood the importance of our message and chose to look the other way. But the security manager wasn’t having any of that climate change hoo ha.
“You have no permit!” he exclaimed. Oh I’m sorry, where do we apply for the “banners critical of university conduct, flown from the general library” permit? Yeah well, “you’re disrupting students!” he said. Mate, you’re the only disruption around here.
In the face of university diktat we were powerless, so we watched as our banner was severed from our bodies. A protest that caused less disruption than the vegan lunch van’s arrival, and here was university management on us like the US on oil.
This protest marked nearly one year since 14 members of Fossil Free UoA occupied the university clocktower, demanding that the vice chancellor support fossil fuel divestment. After 14 hours of occupation no demands were met, and my friends were dragged out by police.
A week prior to our banner action, approximately 1000 students took to the streets to save the university’s specialist libraries, which are set to close without any student consultation. No change has yet been announced by university management; more protests are planned as part of rallying for a new university.
These actions are evidence of the discontent in the student body with university management who refuse to listen to our voices. Battles are being waged which cut to the heart of the role of universities in society. They ask whether we view our universities merely as for-profit corporations or whether they truly are public institutions that function as the critic and conscience of society.
The University of Auckland Foundation has approximately 1.5% of its investment fund invested in companies with fossil fuel interests. After a recent round of fundraising the fund now sits pretty at around $224 million. Meaning the University of Auckland has approximately $3.3 million invested in coal, oil and gas companies. This is why Fossil Free UoA fight.
The university and its vice chancellor persist, while the alarm bells of climate change become deafening: from continuing summers of coral bleaching in Australia, to extreme storms and flooding of low-lying towns in Aotearoa. It’s simple. There is no justification for funding climate change.
When I enrolled with the University of Auckland I had no idea about these investments and when I found out I initially considered jumping ship. I could enroll just down the road at AUT – it would be a market-based protest, like buying free range eggs at twice the cost and then waiting/hoping for the market to adapt. But it’s not so easy when the commodity is my education. My entire social, educational and administrative life is hooked into UoA’s network.
Three and a half years in, we at Fossil Free UoA persist, spurred on by the progress made in other institutions. 350 Aotearoa has campaigned successfully for Auckland Council, Victoria University and Otago University to divest. Globally, the movement has led to institutions with a collective value of over $6 trillion divesting.
I’m happy to be part of this movement, but it’s a shame. It’s a shame because I’ve got exams to study for and it’s hard trying to save the world at the same time.
Could Auckland University at least be more transparent? It’d be easy for information to be put on their website about all their financial ties and investments – allowing prospective students to make a rational, informed choice between Auckland University and the other universities that aren’t setting the world on fire.
But of course they won’t do it. So instead I spend my time painting banners and scuffling with security, losing marks on my Law 231 test by the minute. Times like this I kind of wish I was studying, ethically, at AUT.
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