Students calling for UNC to divest from coal are looking to the 1980s for inspiration in their ongoing campaign asking administrators to take a moral stance on climate change.
In 1987, student-led protests culminated in UNC divesting funds from companies doing business in South Africa in response to apartheid.
And now, Stewart Boss, events coordinator of the Sierra Student Coalition’s Beyond Coal campaign and a Daily Tar Heel columnist, said the campaign is urging the University to divest from coal to set an example.
Jim Leloudis, a history professor and associate dean of UNC’s honors department, said divestment campaigns in general call into question the ethical responsibility universities have in controversial areas.
“There are two sides. One is that the endowment and those that manage it have a responsibility to maximize yield,” Leloudis said. “On the other side, the university does indeed have a special ethical responsibility.”
The apartheid divestment campaign has served as a model for the length of the current effort.
“It inspires and reminds students that we’re in it for the long haul,” Boss said. “It doesn’t get won in a day, a semester or even a year.”
Students voted in February to approve a referendum encouraging divestment of coal from UNC’s $2.1 billion endowment. Student Congress also passed a resolution March 5 to support divestment.
But Boss said some students hoped to present to the Board of Trustees’ budget committee at next week’s board meeting and were told they could not.
The Anti-Apartheid Support Group was formed on campus in 1985 and worked with other groups until the University committed to divestment in October 1987.
Among other protests, students built a shantytown in Polk Place to demonstrate the conditions the black population of South Africa faced.
“You had to be almost willfully blind to not be caught by the sight of it,” Leloudis said.
Robert Reid-Pharr, who graduated in 1987 and was active in the campaign, said about 10 students lived in each shanty at a time.
Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, co-president of the Campus Y during the time of the campaign and now a professor of anthropology at UNC, said the shantytown was essential in inspiring campus awareness of an international issue.
“We were connecting through our economy to that world,” he said.
But when UNC officially decided to divest, administrators gave largely economic — not moral — explanations.
“The holdings were a relatively tiny fraction of the endowment, and the yield so low, that in very practical business terms it made sense to be done with them,” Leloudis said.
Many UNC administrators were engaged with the student protesters in the 1980s, Reid-Pharr said — something student leaders of the coal divestment campaign said is not fully happening now.
“We need administrators, trustees, and the endowment board to take a look seriously and hear out students,” Boss said.
The apartheid divestment campaign was well-known nationally when UNC divested. About 155 colleges had also at least partially divested from South Africa.
Five schools have divested from coal companies, said Mary Schellentrager divestment campaign coordinator of the Energy Action Coalition.
Leloudis said UNC has historically been open to debating big issues.
“Better to be a place that’s tumultuous and where the questions are asked than to be a place that’s placid and quiet and refuses to reflect on its obligations,” he said.
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