BY JULIA HO, EMILY ALVES, MEGAN ODENTHAL, JAMAL SADRUD-DIN, AND GEORGIA MCCANDLISH
At 11am on Saturday morning, 5 student representatives from the sit-in against Peabody entered a conference room in Brookings Hall to meet with Chancellor Wrighton. Forty-five minutes later, we emerged from the meeting with an increased sense of resolve and passion to a crowd of 50 supporters.
The meeting, which occurred on Day 5 of the sit-in, came just a day after ‘Students Against Peabody’ publicly revealed their demands. In the meeting with Chancellor Wrighton, we articulated our demands: 1. Remove CEO Greg Boyce and Peabody from the Board of Trustees 2. The Chancellor must attend community-organized tours of Peabody extraction zones and issue a public statement about his experiences 3. Increased student voice on the board of trustees.
We were excited and inspired about the prospects of meeting with the Chancellor, hoping that he had heard our demands and was ready to take meaningful steps together in order to end our relationship with Peabody. Yet when we entered the Chancellor’s office, we quickly realized the Chancellor was prepared for a very different conversation.
The Chancellor opened the meeting by discussing the university’s stance on so-called “Clean Coal,” launching into a dialogue about why Washington University’s research will fulfill the world’s energy needs; it was very disappointing to hear how much the Chancellor has internalized the rhetoric of the coal industry. As many students who have met with Chancellor Wrighton may attest, these long orations by our Chancellor block any meaningful discussion, by silencing students’ voices and barring any input.
Upon telling Chancellor Wrighton why we are concerned about our university’s relationship with the world’s largest private-sector coal corporation, we realized he was unaware of many of the chief issues Students Against Peabody have been fighting for, including community rights, worker’s rights, human rights and social justice. In fact, when we questioned him about WashU’s relationship with Peabody, he replied that the university has many, many partnerships and is not responsible for the actions of external organizations. Yet, Peabody is headquartered right here in St. Louis, and their actions have a direct impact on communities all around the city. For example, in 2010, Peabody Energy received a tax break on $61 million worth of purchases, taking money away from St. Louis public schools and other public services. As a University, we should have an awareness of what is going on in our community and be engaged with people outside of the WashU bubble.
Despite his lack of awareness on these issues, he affirmed the university’s commitment to improving the quality of life for people, advancing human rights, and working for social justice. When we inquired about the barriers that Chancellor Wrighton foresees in removing Greg Boyce from the Board of Trustees, he stated that he does not have the authority to make that decision. But when we pushed him further and asked, “do you have the authority to take a stance on this issue?” Chancellor Wrighton bluntly responded, “I can, but I won’t.”
These words by the Chancellor struck deep and show how significantly Peabody is embedded in our University. How can Chancellor Wrighton fail to see the ways in which the university’s relationship with Peabody runs counter to mission of the university? More importantly, how can Chancellor Wrighton fail to understand that by maintaining this close relationship, the university condones and supports Peabody’s actions and thereby implicitly supports the destruction of communities and our planet?
Upon Chancellor Wrighton’s declaration that he would not take a stance on the removal of Boyce from the Board of Trustees, we collectively rose from our seats and walked out of the conference room, stating that it was clear the Chancellor was not yet willing to seriously negotiate and that if he wanted to continue the conversation, then we could be found under the Brookings Arch.
We walked out of the meeting with Chancellor Wrighton because we realized that as long as administrative decisions are made behind closed doors, without student voice, traditional means of communication cannot convince Washington University to cut ties with Peabody Energy. Even though we got a ‘no,’ we left empowered and inspired because we realized that although there are considerable steps left to cut WashU’s ties with Peabody, we will not back down. Now that the Chancellor has given us a firm ‘no,’ it is time to escalate our fight and make our voices heard all across the country, and galvanize others to speak out and question their relationships with these large fossil fuel corporations on their own campuses and in their own communities. We know that we will not win overnight and that the fight does not end when Greg Boyce is off of the Board or when WashU cuts ties with Peabody. But in the meantime, we will grow this movement and hope to learn more and more about what it means to organize strategically, escalate, and inspire others to action.