Nassau Hall, Princeton University.
Nassau Hall, Princeton University. Credit: Smallbones / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Hannah Reynolds, co-coordinator of the Divest Princeton campaign and a senior at Princeton University from Upstate New York. Hannah is also a columnist with the Daily Princetonian. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

TIGERALERT: GET IN, GET DOWN, COVER UP. Stay where you are and stay away from windows.” 

At the start of September, Princeton University students were welcomed back to campus with a “tornado emergency.” After receiving confirmation that a tornado caused by Hurricane Ida had touched down and was headed toward Princeton, students were instructed to take shelter in the basements. However, many of those basements were filled with inches of standing water as a result of flash flooding

The severity of the climate crisis is now undeniable even here in Central New Jersey, where our administrators have been sitting comfortably as much of the country experiences wildfires, drought, tropical storms, flooding, and glacial recession. If a tornado and flash flooding won’t do the trick, what will it take for Princeton to finally end its ties with the fossil fuel industry?

At present, Princeton remains one of the few remaining Ivies invested in the fossil fuel industry. Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale have all announced ambitious plans to divest from coal, tar sands, and oil and gas companies that do not align with UN science-based targets

We have seen clear leadership on climate change from more than sixty universities and thousands of other institutions worldwide, yet all Princeton has done is create new committees, a stalling tactic meant to delay needed action and stonewall student activists. What must happen for Princeton to follow the precedent set by so many peer institutions and divest from fossil fuels, if not the divestment of its rivals like Harvard and Dartmouth

Princeton’s ties to the fossil fuel industry do not stop at the investment of its $26 billion endowment. The university continues to accept funding for energy and environmental research from some of the most egregious polluters and climate deniers in the industry: ExxonMobil and BP. In mid-September, executives from both companies were called to testify before the House of Representatives following the leaked video of an Exxon official boasting of his company’s efforts at climate disinformation. When will Princeton realize that continued partnership with such flagrant polluters and climate deniers undermines its leadership in climate science and harms its students? When will Princeton understand that “shareholder engagement” is no longer viable?  

As co-coordinator of Divest Princeton and someone who has worked on this campaign for over a year and a half, I know too well that Princeton will continue imposing bureaucratic obstacles and resist the nearly 2,500 Princetonians demanding a full and transparent divestment from fossil fuels. There’s a reason why there have been five iterations of our campaign over the past ten years, with only our most recent proposal reaching the Board of Trustees. There’s a reason why, following the board’s historic announcement of a partial divestment from coal and tar sands in May, nothing has happened in five months except the creation of a new faculty panel to review our investments. 

Committee after committee, one thing has remained constant: Princeton continues to neglect its moral and fiduciary responsibility to end its ties with the fossil fuel industry. The University’s tactics of delay are rooted in a stubborn and puerile refusal to “give in.” But as the evidence and pressure mount — the science, the fiduciary argument, a precedent from other universities, climate-related tropical storms and flash floods on its own campus — what will it take for Princeton to finally take bold climate action?

At this point, I’m not sure, and I’m not optimistic. We’re already underwater.