By CATE STACKHOUSE
Members of DivestUMW have held a sit-in outside of University of Mary Washington President Rick Hurley’s office for over 150 hours to protest the recent Board of Visitor’s decision to reject the creation of a divestment sub-committee. Since the sit-in began, 113 students have participated.
According to Hurley in an interview following the BOV decision on March 18, “[the BOV] concluded they’d learned enough about the subject. We did a retreat with them in the summer and went over a thorough presentation with them about divest and its implications for the university.”
“Their ultimate financial responsibility is to get the ultimate return on investments for the university, and we do not directly invest in fossil fuel companies,” Hurley continued. “They believe strongly in the sustainability measures the school is doing.”
The sit-in started on Thursday, March 26, with students vowing to continue the demonstration until certain demands are met. According to DivestUMW co-founder Zakaria Kronemer, “The first is for Rector [Holly] Cuellar to use her power to establish the sub-committee. The second is for the BOV to commit to divesting from coal by May of 2016.”
The protest started in the morning on Thursday, but according to Rabib Hasan, a member of DivestUMW, the group made the decision on Saturday to engage in the sit-in.
According to Kronemer, DivestUMW’s short term goal is to “bring dialogue back between the student body, the administration, the faculty and the BOV.”
Hurley said he agrees about the importance of dialogue, but also noted, “My hope is that the students in DivestUMW will work with us to identify all the ways to address concerns about climate change, not just divestment.”
Starting Friday, students from other schools in Virginia, including James Madison University, Virginia Tech, University of Virginia and William & Mary, joined DivestUMW.
While engaging in the sit-in, the group has also been active on social media, racking up support for the movement.
DivestUMW received shout-outs on Facebook from anti-fracking groups in places as far away as India and the Netherlands.
On Twitter, The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition tweeted a picture expressing their solidarity with DivestUMW. Other environmental groups, such as the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Sierra Club, also showed their support through tweets.
Although Hurley indicated that he did not think the outside encouragement for the movement would sway the BOV, he expressed his continued support for the students engaging in the sit in.
“I’m proud of our students for standing up for their convictions about the global threats from climate change,” said Hurley.
On Monday, Traci Dippert, a Democratic candidate for Virginia State Senate, visited DivestUMW and expressed her support for the movement.
“Divestment is your future, and I applaud your resolve to fight for it,” said Dippert. “I sit with you in support of divestment and in your generation’s future. Let these events not only change the minds of the Board of Visitors at UMW and universities across America, but let them change the view of the masses about how we invest and how we secure that future.”
Dippert then went on to connect the movement to her senate race.
“When I take my Senate seat next January in a new Democratic majority, be assured that I will continue to stand with you,” said Dippert.
Later on Monday, DivestUMW held an open forum in Dodd Auditorium for students to attend and ask questions about the group’s mission.
Eric Bonds, a UMW professor of sociology and anthropology, hosted the forum and introduced the group.
The group answered questions from students in the audience, as well as questions posted on twitter.
According to Kronemer, the group was “preaching to the choir, but the choir must sing more loudly.”
“After going to the forum and finding out new details, I decided to attend the sit-in,” said Ethan Lane, a member of SGA who joined the sit-in on Tuesday.
After the forum, some students said they still feel that DivestUMW has not fully articulated their position.
“I wish DivestUMW had more concrete and direct information about the situation. I feel like a lot of people have different understandings of what’s going on,” said Ray Celeste Tanner, a junior communication major.
On Tuesday, President Hurley met with members of the sit-in.
Afterward, members of DivestUMW took to Facebook and Twitter to indicate their change in support toward President Hurley, as they felt he no was no longer backing them.
Hurley later shared his thoughts on the meeting.
“While I support the students’ right to engage in peaceful action to promote their position, the Board has made its position clear, which I will uphold,” said Hurley. “My job as President is to balance the multiple interests of students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors, while maintaining the directives of the Board of Visitors to advance the University.”
Because DivestUMW perceives President Hurley as changing his stance, they will be “reformulating [their] strategy to reflect the shift in dynamics,” according to Kronemer.
Kronemer also indicated that the group’s demands have not shifted in terms of wanting the BOV to commit to divesting from the fossil fuel industry by May 2016.
“It’s disconcerting that the BOV is not fulling recognizing our position. They have said thanks, but we are not doing it for appreciation from the BOV. Our main goal is divestment from fossil fuels,” said junior Daniel McLeod, a member of DivestUMW.