If 10 percent of Columbia College students sign a petition for Columbia to divest from the fossil fuel industry, Columbia's very first ballot initiative may take place this semester.
Barnard Columbia Divest is ramping up its efforts to have the University reinvest its endowment in more environmentally friendly places, and it's looking to go through the newly enacted legislative process.
“The power of a ballot initiative or referenda is that they force a response, and they aggregate media attention to the issue. They force people to look and consider what people are talking about,” University Senator Jared Odessky, CC '15, said. “Now students have to face the choice of what they think about the issue.”
This ballot initiative, an issue brought by the student body to be voted on by the student body, would be the first since its implementation into the Columbia College constitution last year.
Unlike at schools like the University of California, Berkeley, however, where a ballot initiative on divestment enacted real policy change, students here cannot affect policy. The complicated process travels from the University Senate to University President Lee Bollinger to the Board of Trustees.
“If the majority of students feels that Barnard and Columbia should divest from these companies, then just having that evidence on paper would be really powerful, even if it doesn't directly initiate policy. The administration wants to satisfy the student body. If the students aren't happy with their decisions, that's a thing they have to consider,” Ashley Wagner, BC '14, Barnard's Student Government Association representative for campus policy, and chair of the Sustainable Initiatives Consulting Board, said.
“This is a cry to force the University to divest from fossil fuels, but also for the University to release information,” Odessky said.
The hopes are that this petition will both spread awareness to the student body and compel the University to make the system more transparent.
While BCD has been an organization on campus since November 2012, members remain concerned over a perceived ack of awareness on campus about their cause.
“I don't think anyone at Barnard really knows about it,” Wagner said. “I asked my friends if they had heard of it, and not a single person had.”
Pairing up with the Columbia University Democrats, BCD has engaged in a dorm-storming campaign to explain their causes and goals to students.
Adrian Febre, SEAS '15, said that he was skeptical of the benefits of divesting.
“There's obviously a good reason the money is there. There must be a lot of money coming from it to pay for stuff, and since Columbia is not flushed for cash—and hell, I could use some money, for my education, I would have to see what the effect of having the money divested would be,” Febre said.
Alex Richardson, GS '15, said that he had more faith in the divestment movement.
“Divestment from fossil fuels is an important step in the right direction that I'd like to see happen here,” he said.
Ryan Elivo, CC '15 and a member of BCD's Coordinating Committee, said that Columbia's investments in the fossil fuel industry were hypocritical.
“Columbia loves to praise itself as being a highly sustainable institution. We have Jeffrey Sachs, the Earth Institute, and organic strawberries at Ferris. Columbia should put its money where its mouth is,” Elivo said.
At a fireside chat on Tuesday, University President Lee Bollinger said that while he didn't see any need to divest, he was open to being convinced otherwise.
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