BOSTON —; Campus activists who often fight in parallel with one another for their respective causes are now starting to form alliances as they turn up the pressure on some U.S. colleges to financially divest from industries that run counter to their beliefs.
Student groups that have long called on colleges to stop investing in fossil fuels have begun working alongside students demanding divestment from the prison industry, a movement that has gained momentum recently with support from black student organizations.
Coalitions created this year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the University of Pennsylvania have pressured their institutions to drop investments in fossil fuels and prisons and in companies that have ties to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, demands that students previously pursued separately. At Tufts University near Boston, divestment groups against fossil fuels and Israel banded together with a coalition opposing investments in private prison companies.
"There's a consciousness with the younger generations that these are not single issues," said Zakaria Kronemer, a national organizer for the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a New York nonprofit group that helps students campaign around what they see as crucial social-justice issues. "It doesn't make sense for us to be working in silos anymore."
Beyond the call for divestments, students have thrown other causes into the mix. After fighting to get Columbia University to divest from fossil fuels, a student group organized a coalition with five other campus groups that tackle issues such as racism, sexual assault and workers' rights. Together, as the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network, they issued merged demands to campus administrators.
"I don't think they've dealt with anything like this," said Daniela Lapidous, a senior and a group member. "Only by building these coalitions will we win any of our demands."
The collaborations have had some success. After students staged a joint sit-in this year, the president of Wesleyan agreed to endorse divestment from the prison industry.
Advocacy groups that help students organize say they expect to see more crossover coalitions at colleges. Already, students from several universities are trying to establish a national umbrella group that would unite students across schools and causes. National environmental groups have offered online training to students on the perks of solidarity.
"Increasingly, the climate movement has seen how deeply intertwined the climate crisis is with issues of racial and economic injustice," said Jenny Marienau, a divestment campaign manager for the environmental group 350.org. "I don't think it's just a numbers game, though. I really do think there's deeper alignment."
Students against fossil fuel investments, for example, point to a recent report from Columbia predicting that rising temperatures will pose a health risk at prisons.
But some critics say it's a reach to draw connections between fossil fuel divestment and other movements.
Bradford Cornell, a professor of financial economics at the California Institute of Technology, said the debate over fossil fuels is straightforward, focusing on the costs and benefits of using those fuels. Cornell is also the author of a 2015 report finding that divesting from fossil fuels can hurt universities' investment returns.
Even with the help of newly formed coalitions, though, students have struggled to get colleges to disclose their investments. The Wesleyan group, named the Coalition for Divestment and Transparency, criticized the school because students have no way of knowing if Wesleyan invests in contentious industries.
Of the 30 public universities with the largest endowments, only nine released any of their investment holdings in response to a recent Associated Press records request. None of the 20 private colleges with the top endowments — the smallest of which tops $3 billion — provided any records.
Colleges guard their investments closely, contending that disclosure would tip their hand to competitors. Some students and faculty say colleges should invest only in socially responsible ways, but colleges and financial experts counter that endowments are meant primarily to generate revenue.
Often, administrators can't even trace all their institution's investments.
Most big universities now invest in hedge funds, said Jessica Matthews, head of the mission-related investing practice at Cambridge Associates, which advises colleges on investments. While those types of funds pose a challenge to divestment, she added, there are some fossil-free hedge funds available to schools.
Research has been mixed on whether divesting from fossil fuels would hurt a university's endowment. Some colleges counter that it's better to work with companies on changes rather than cut ties with them.
Still, Matthews said she sees some evidence that universities are heeding the calls of campus activists. Over the past two years, more than 70 colleges have sent inquiries about divestment, a surge over previous years. Most have been focused on fossil fuels, she said, but there has been growing interest in prison divestment.