A group of students, faculty, and staff have been requesting a meeting with New York University President John Sexton for over a year. What finally made him give in? 1500 petition signatures and 300 feet of paper.
At a public forum on April 14, a group of students confronted the President with a striking visual display and a persistent demand. I had been chosen as speaker. Each of us approached the welcome table in separate waves, so as not to draw attention, and submitted my name into the fishbowl of questions. Blending in with the crowd, we took seats in various corners of the room and sorted out last minute details in hushed voices. The Chair of the Student Senators Council, poised, confident, and dressed in heels for the occasion, began to moderate the forum. A glimmer of recognition passed over her face as she pulled out the first slip of paper from the fishbowl. “Soph, you’re up,” she called me by nickname, attesting to our many months of correspondences in appeal to her council’s support of the campaign. I took the mic and began a prepared statement,
My name is Sophie Lasoff and I am a junior at the Gallatin School of Individualized Studies. I am asking a question on behalf of NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free. We are a coalition of students, faculty, and alumni calling for the divestment of NYU’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry, specifically the top 200 publicly-traded coal, oil, and natural gas companies. President Sexton, we requested a meeting with you over a year ago, and since then our campaign has gained tremendous momentum.
As I spoke, the others stood up from their seats and began to unravel a series of long paper scrolls containing the names of 1500 individual petition signatures in support of divestment. Audience members shifted in their seats and looked around as the hundred foot long scrolls wrapped down the aisles and around the room. The chair of the Senators Council got up from her seat, but Sexton stood, arms crossed, focused on me as I continued my speech.
I detailed the strides our campaign had made during the year prior, and indicated to the national movement of over 400 student campaigns alongside which we were demanding fossil fuel divestment. I was sure to mention the recent success just that Saturday when the President and Board of Pitzer College of Claremont, California announced their commitment to divest from all fossil fuel companies, making them the 11th university to agree to divestment.
I gestured to the visual demonstration and told Sexton that we had come to ask him to meet personally with NYU Divest before the end of the Spring semester. “The urgency and global scale of the climate crisis warrants immediate action from the university,” I said, concluding by citing the exalted motto of the university itself, “If we really are ‘the private university in the public service,’ then it is critical that you personally hear our proposal to address the climate change issue.”
In the next five minutes, Sexton proved himself to be the clever orator he’s known as, bordering on false statements and quickly qualifying them with the rough truth. Put on the spot in front of hundreds of students in the room and on the live stream, Sexton had to maintain the stance of accessibility that he consistently purported. “I’ve never refused to meet; students know they can stop me in the streets for heaven sakes!” he exclaimed, and then immediately shifted the burden of responsibility back onto the university bureaucracy and away from his authority.
After a short exchange, I remained persistent and redirected the conversation back to our demand, “Are you saying that you are not willing to meet with our campaign?”
“Will you take yes for an answer?” he conceded. Claps resounded throughout the room.
I thanked him for his time, smiling to myself that something as simple as a symbolic public act could produce such immediate results. After months of lackluster support and sluggish inaction by the school’s bureaucracy, the momentum of our campaign was completely reset.
I had been struggling for a while, wondering why group dynamics had suffered since the first semester we began to campaign. As it became harder to achieve external progress, it became harder to keep up internal moral. I had made this correlation before, but it was not until I experienced the contrast of positive movement forward that I recognized just how significant it was. The action allowed us to channel our previously frustrated energy into a deeper sense of commitment.
We had seen pressure in action in smaller ways before, for instance when we wrote a public letter and received a meeting with the Chief Financial Officer. But this time we put ourselves out on a line in a way that we hadn’t before. The experience taught us to be wary of delay tactics and to recognize our own agency in generating positive momentum. You learn these things over and over again in workshops, trainings, and seminars, but the lessons don’t really stick until you test it out for yourself. We felt the power tangibly shift in that room. We felt the potential of our own creative capacities. We felt that we were moving forward again towards our goal of climate justice. All it took to clear the stale air was a little escalation and creativity.