Why We're Sitting in at WashU (and We're Not Leaving)

Written by Caroline Burney, senior at Washington University

I’ve learned many things in my four years at Washington University in St. Louis--not all of them in the classroom. For example, before I became a student at Wash U, I had never heard of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal corporation.  

In St. Louis, Peabody ingratiates itself to the local community by posing as a benefactor of the arts, charitable corporate ‘citizen,’ and hero tackling “energy poverty.” It all sounds pretty good until you realize that Peabody Energy is the world’s largest private sector coal corporation whose business model propagates climate change and destroys communities. Peabody’s list of crimes is a veritable laundry list of social and environmental injustices: the destruction of mountains in West Virginia, the forced relocation of Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes in Black Mesa, Arizona, being a major supporter of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which have been strong advocates of controversial legislation like “Stand Your Ground” laws, the destruction of Rocky Branch, Illinois through aggressive mining and logging, and the distortion of democracy here in St. Louis by striking down a city-wide ballot initiative. 

Peabody CEO Greg Boyce also holds one more distinction: member of the Washington University Board of Trustees. Since Boyce was placed on the board in 2009, students have been actively organizing against Peabody Energy’s presence on campus. We have demanded that Boyce be removed from the Board of Trustees and that the University change the name of the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” a research entity to which Peabody and Arch Coal donated $5,000,000. We have met with the Chancellor -- multiple times. We have dropped banners at coal events, peacefully disrupted speeches by Greg Boyce on campus, marched through campus and taken our demands to Peabody’s headquarters. We have protested with residents from Black Mesa, collected signatures for the Take Back St. Louis ballot initiative and rallied with the United Mine Workers in their fight against Peabody.

But, five years later, Boyce is still on the board, the name of the Clean Coal Consortium remains unchanged, and Chancellor Wrighton continues to stand behind Peabody Energy. Indeed, just this week he emailed us saying, “your opinion that peabody energy behaves in an ‘irresponsible and unjust manner’ is not one that I share.” The Administration has successfully used a “deny by delay” process by holding town hall meetings and developing task forces around renewable energy and energy efficiency while ignoring the role that coal plays on the campus.

Thus, like many campus divestment campaigns across the country, we are at a crossroads.

We’ve decided that it’s time to escalate to let Chancellor Wrighton and Greg Boyce know that we’re running out of time and we’re not going to back down. We are engaging in a sit-in of our admissions office to tell Chancellor Wrighton that our university can no longer legitimize destructive fossil fuel corporations. By having Greg Boyce on the Board of Trustees and hosting the “Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization,” the University is propagating the lie that coal is clean. But people who live in the communities where Peabody mines, including Black Mesa and Rocky Branch, know that coal is never clean.

Escalating on campus is scary. We know it is going to be divisive. We know our Chancellor fundamentally disagrees with us. But not escalating is even scarier. Not escalating means Peabody continues to destroy communities and our climate. And that’s a risk we cannot take. 

Let Wash U know that you stand with us by signing our petition here.

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