By Charlie Taylor-Kroll
A “serious” University-wide consultation and discussion on whether the University should divest in fossil fuels will begin following a University Executive Committee (UEC) meeting.
Fossil fuel divestment has been an important topic of discussion since March 2015, when Palatinate discovered through a Freedom of Information request that the University had invested over £4.5 million in fossil fuel companies.
At the time, the University told Palatinate: “We have no plans to withdraw from investing or engaging in research financed from fossil fuel companies.”
Following this response, many student groups, including People and Planet and Durham Young Greens, have been lobbying for the University to seriously consider withdrawing such investments.
A meeting with the University Executive Committee was arranged in December 2015 to open discussions about the University’s participation in the investment in fossil fuels.
At the meeting, Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge requested that a short paper on the issue of divestment was compiled and presented to the UEC in the near future.
Corbridge reportedly wanted this paper to include specific financial details about investment in fossil fuels from Chief Finance Officer Sally McGill, and an examination of how other universities have consulted over the issue.
The Vice-Chancellor also asked staff to draw up a timeline of how further consultation can be brought about and which committees should be involved in the process.
Durham Students’ Union President, Millie Tanner, member of Greenpeace Tara Duncan, and Professor Jon Gluyas from the Earth Science Department were all invited to join the discussion as to whether the University should seriously consider withdrawing its investment in fossil fuels.
Millie Tanner presented to the UEC with the level of student support for divestment to date, including the support of People and Planet, Young Greens, as well as support from the College JCRs.
In a letter sent to Durham University’s People and Planet Society, Tanner concluded that the result of the meeting was a “a pretty positive outcome.”
She continued that, “without a 100% firm solid agreement, he is definitely moving in the direction of consulting and having the conversation, which is the first big hurdle to get over.”
Following the meeting the University told Palatinate that a serious debate surrounding divestment should now begin.
They said: “Following discussion (at the UEC meeting), which emphasised the complexity of the issues involved, it was agreed that an informed and inclusive debate around divestment should take place across the University community.”
Vice Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge also told Palatinate: “It is important for the University to understand the breadth of views across the student body.
“We (the University) recognise that there will be a plurality of views and students may choose to communicate their opinions in different ways, and we will need to balance these out and consult with elected student representatives in determining the University response.”
People and Planet Society at Durham has been at the forefront of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. The society has held demonstrations, including staging a staged event on Palace Green and a Halloween-themed event outside Bill Bryson Library.
The society also began a petition for Durham University students to support the University to divest in fossil fuels.
They have also been encouraging College common rooms to support divestment. Nine college common rooms have so far passed the motion to support divestment in fossil fuels.
Talking about the recent UEC meeting, member of People and Planet, Paul Gape, told Palatinate: “I welcome the outcome of the UEC meeting, a wider consultation is a necessary step if the university is going to divest so good to see them beginning that process.
“We’ve also found most academics to be sympathetic towards the campaign already having 20 signing a petition calling on the university to divest.”
Paul also emphasized the importance of support from residents local to County Durham. He told Palatinate: “A few of us went to the Divestment Durham launch event with Natalie Bennett, calling on the University, Cathedral and County Council to divest, so it was good to chat to more residents there. We’re hoping to help each other out in the future.”
Another key group in the divestment campaign has been the Durham Young Greens, who have continued to support the divestment of fossil fuels.
President of Durham Young Greens, Paul Cohen, told Palatinate: “It is of the utmost importance that the Vice-Chancellor and the University Executive Committee responds swiftly and proactively to the campaign from students and staff and divests from fossil fuels.
“The example set by other academic institutions both across the UK and the globe shows that divestment is not only possible but the best course of action for a leading and enlightened university.”
Support for fossil fuel divestment has also gone beyond members of the University. Leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, signed three letters to the University, Durham Cathedral, and Durham County Council requesting that all three institutions withdraw their investment in fossil fuel companies.
Speaking to Palatinate at the event, Bennett explained that she saw significant student support for divestment in the city.
She said: “It is very clear this is happening (support for divestment), as we can see through the efforts of groups, such as People and Planet, and through the efforts of resistance in the city, who have been telling the University “we want you to divest.”
Speaking about Bennett’s participation in the campaign, Paul Cohen told Palatinate: “The fact that the leader of a political party has joined the campaign here in Durham shows that this is a national issue and one in which Durham can set a leading example by working with campaigners toward divestment.”
Photograph: James Ennis