As the Penn Board of Trustees approved hundreds of millions in construction costs at a meeting this past November, sober–faced students silently stood in the back holding posters reading, “YOU ARE FUNDING CLIMATE CHANGE.”
This was not the first time students expressed disdain for Penn’s investment in fossil fuels. Less than a month earlier, the Board rejected Fossil Free Penn’s second divestment proposal in three years.
One of these students at the Trustees meeting was Jacob Hershman (C’20), a campaign coordinator for Fossil Free Penn who spent months helping to write and edit FFP’s proposal. Since its rejection, FFP has been broadening its scope and working to educate non–activists. Even though its members are active and still protest at Board meetings, “we are very, very, very tired of inaction,” he says, sighing heavily.
It is hard to go a day without seeing headlines about climate change and its catastrophic consequences. From the Arctic's ice vanishing to Central Americans fleeing their homes to find a better life in the United States due to the instability of farming, climate change affects everyone and every part of society. It has only worsened over time, and is on course to continue.
Penn has taken steps to be more sustainable, from purchasing more green power to installing tap water filters all across campus. But for students in environmental groups, these stand–alone efforts are not enough for a university with an endowment of $13.8 billion. They don't just want divestment—they call on Penn administrators to use their institutional influence to lobby for climate action legislation and pursue bolder action, such as running on 100 percent renewable energy and establishing LEED platinum buildings on campus.
But University administrators have been hesitant to even talk to these student groups—let alone push for such wide–reaching efforts—and students are fed up. The few university initiatives that exist, namely Penn Sustainability, are constrained by Penn’s bureaucracy, and subsequently operate a world away from student activists.
Vyshnavi Kosigishroff (C’22), one of the organizers of the Penn Climate Strike hosted earlier this semester, feels that most of the pressure to be sustainable is put onto the students. “We don’t really have any support from any administrator up there,” she says with composure. Tori Borlase (C’22), another organizer of the Penn Climate Strike, adds, “It’s not as if [the administrators] think they have some sort of responsibility in the first place. We want to make sure they do understand that they do have that responsibility.” Tori goes as far as to say that the only things capable of motivating Penn to change are the fear of bad press or losing money because of its inaction.
There is no administrative branch tasked specifically with fighting climate change. The one that comes closest is the Penn Sustainability Office, which operates under Penn Facilities and helps with building and maintaining infrastructure. It is also known for planning events like ‘Bike to Work Day’ and tree giveaways, which, to students like Vyshnavi and Tori, only scratches the surface.
However, according to Ben Suplick, the director of Engineering and Energy Planning at Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services, “Penn is doing a lot of things that other schools wish they could do. It’s pretty impressive in comparison.” His assessment is based on his previous employment experiences at other universities in addition to the talks he’s had with his peers. “[Penn students] don’t see what’s happening at Jefferson or LaSalle or Villanova or Princeton. I think if they were to take a look at what those institutions are doing, they’d realize that Penn is really putting [its] money where [its] mouth is.”
Dan Garofalo, the director of Penn Sustainability, expresses some understanding for the Board of Trustees’ predicament regarding climate action. “Sometimes I joke around and I say, ‘We do have a Board of Trustees, we don’t have a board of radicals. ’” He paused before delivering the punchline.
Garofalo continues, “The idea of being a Trustee is that you want to guarantee the stability of the institution from generation to generation, and the way you do that is you’re conservative.”
Faran Savitz (C’19) argues that the Board of Trustees’ notion of knowing better than students doesn’t make sense when it comes to the climate. “You can’t just say ‘we have the experience’ because we have never experienced something like what’s happening with increases in storms and rising sea levels.” He is one of the co–presidents of Penn Environmental Group, which he describes as “a gateway drug for environmentalism,” and is not known for being as vocal or aggressive as Fossil Free Penn.
But he thinks that, given the urgency of rising temperatures, PEG will move towards a more activist stance as well. “I think, when push comes to shove, it might be time to start shoving."
Garofalo characterizes his office’s approach as “pretty cautious, but also pretty inventive.” Penn Sustainability pilots many new programs before expanding, such as the student–led Hand Dryer Pilot Project in Ware College House. Suplick generally avoids trying cutting–edge technologies. He views his responsibility as making sure everything runs smoothly. “We tend to want to be the second person, not the first person [to try something], because there’s too much risk to being the first person to try something, especially on the large scale,” he says. “I’d prefer to have someone else do it first and succeed, and then we can learn from that and do it better.”
Jacob takes issue with this attitude. “There’s going to be a certain amount of risk in making any sort of revolutionary decision,” he says in disbelief. “Penn is one of the most influential and financially capable institutions in the world, and if any entity should be pioneering the types of shifts that we need in order to safely proceed into the future, it should be Penn.”
While Suplick knows that “students [want to] see big change and significant programs that are gonna change the face of sustainability,” he strongly believes that the small things make a big difference: “If I could get people to turn off their lights, unplug things, set back their thermostats, recycle, walk instead of drive their cars. [If] everyone just did a little tiny bit … and all [took] a little bit of ownership in the effort that we’re putting forth, we could see … improvement. And then trust Facilities and the administration that we’re trying to improve the bigger pieces.”
Jacob’s response to that sentiment is deadpan: “That's insane.” Although he agrees those small actions are important, “the immediate emissions that arise out of the consequences of Penn's existence as a consumer, and the more microscopic level of the individuals that comprise the Penn community—those emissions pale in comparison to those that result from Penn's investment in coal, oil, and natural gas.”
Typically, frustration with Penn’s inaction isn’t directed at Penn Sustainability. Among students, the office’s reputation is that of the little engine that could. Faran describes Penn Sustainability as just “four people, some of whom are straight out of college.”
On his end, Garofalo admits to the disconnect between his office and the world of Penn students. “I’d love to find out more about the culture of undergrads,” he says with a sigh.
While Penn Sustainability works in many areas, it primarily focuses on infrastructure and reports to Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services. This is because when Penn started looking into its footprint, Garofalo says that, “we realized the biggest aspect [was] the fuel used for heating, cooling, lighting our buildings, and running all the things that are plugged into the walls.”
The need to have clear metrics to measure progress also justifies this infrastructure focus. It does mean, though, that some sustainability initiatives are invisible to students, such as efforts to recycle construction debris.
Another point Garofalo admits is that running a university requires continuous building of new research facilities. Even with Penn’s commitment to building sustainably, Garofalo points out that these buildings are energy–intensive and expensive. In this way, Penn Sustainability is tasked with balancing two disparate goals. To this point, Vyshnavi says that “Penn Sustainability does a really good job of taking the onus from the administration.”
Garofalo maintains that he has “absolutely” been supported by the University. Faran, who has interacted with Garofalo, responds to that claim semi–ironically: “He might say that.” Suplick adds that, if students make the business case for it, “they’d be more than willing to support that.”
At the end of the day, it’s difficult for Penn Sustainability to initiate large–scale programs because Penn Facilities and Real Estate's funding comes from the various schools and centers. Suplick acknowledges this model’s challenges. “I can’t say, ‘we’re gonna go do this,’ I have to go to that school and say, ‘Are you in agreement to this in your organization?’”
But for Faran and others, navigating budgets and bureaucracy is a trivial challenge compared to the looming threat of climate change.
They believe that Penn should wield its power and money beyond campus in the political sphere. “[Climate change] is the greatest threat facing humanity right now. Every single aspect of society is going to be affected by climate change, and it’s happening in the next decade,” Faran says. “[Penn has] respect and prestige in almost every community. And [it’s] not doing enough with it.”
Penn spends more than any other Ivy League university on lobbying, but it is difficult to tell whether or not Penn lobbies for or against climate action. Office of Government and Community Affairs Executive Director Dawn Maglicco Deitch responded via email to an interview request, stating, “Penn OGCA has no comment to offer on this topic at this time.”
Penn has occasionally publicized these efforts to the Penn community. In one instance, with regard to the tax reform bill in late 2017, President Gutmann even wrote an email to Penn students urging them to contact their representatives. But when it comes to climate action, the school’s political stance is much harder to discern.
Garofalo says the majority of the relationship between Penn Sustainability and the Office of Government and Community Affairs is based on information exchange rather than lobbying, such as letting Penn Sustainability know about “[opportunities] to take advantage of funding, a grant, or something the city is doing.” He also emphasizes that lobbying and other political activities are outside of Penn Sustainability’s realm.
The Board of Trustees did not respond to several requests for comment.
In an email, Peter Ammon, Director of Penn Office of Investments, stated that Penn’s investment portfolio intends to “support the school in perpetuity, which means we have a duty to try to maintain purchasing power even after spending and inflation.”
Penn’s investment managers, he added, “must be highly ethical people.” While he acknowledged that “this includes considering the implications for investments of both climate change and potential policy responses,” he did not comment directly on fossil fuel investments, or to what extent the implications of climate change affect their decision.
Though there is a clear disconnect between student activists and the administration, everyone does seem to agree that the student body needs to be more informed, and that it can be difficult to connect with students on these issues.
Dr. Simon Richter, the program director of the Penn in Berlin & Rotterdam summer program, conducts informal climate literacy surveys in some of his courses, and finds most students to be "woefully uninformed" about the climate crisis.
Richter follows Penn’s sustainability initiatives with skeptical rigor. He has the FY18 Penn Sustainability Annual Report on his desk, which he flips through before stopping at the section about university–related air travel. He points out that, despite constituting a decent portion of Penn’s greenhouse gas emissions, no current initiatives exist to limit its impact. “I’m not saying that air travel has to stop, but we need to recognize that air travel is a major producer of climate pollution,” he says.
Richter believes that Penn should have a climate crisis sector, with every department creating its own discipline–specific course for it. He also suggests that Penn assign the 2018 IPCC report for the Penn Reading Project. Faran is currently working with the Dean of the College to implement mandatory climate crisis education, as he believes students don’t know enough about the climate crisis beyond “polar bears and ice caps.”
Part of the issue, according to Vyshnavi, is that Penn is not an activist campus. “It’s not what our culture breeds,” she says matter–of–factly.
More specifically, Jacob believes that privilege blinds Penn students to the ways their actions impact the environment. “The people who go to this school, on the whole, have no conception of what the environment is. … That the environment is not a distant, abstract idea; it’s something that we live in, it’s something that’s degrading rapidly.” He adds, “People can separate the trash they throw away from the notion of horrible waste that they’ve heard about on the news, because they’re so high upon that pyramid. … A Iot of students here [can’t] see their actions as actions bearing weight and consequences.”
Garofalo wishes he had the opportunity to connect with students more often. While he enjoys working with the student Eco–Reps, there are only twenty. He often sees students littering and not recycling, even when they know better. “I always struggle with how can we get the message out in a way that reinforces the urgency that students are responsible for the environment,” he says.
Faran has similar frustrations. “There’s no reason to carry around a five dollar bottle of Fiji water. Just carry around a reusable water bottle and fill it up.”
But Jacob believes Penn students can have an impact beyond their daily actions. In fact, he thinks mobilizing students is the only way to get institutional change.
“I think that if Penn sees how strong its students are, and how big of a risk we’re willing to take to achieve what we want to achieve, they’ll capitulate.”