The Parameters of Power

By Debora Spar

This past September, at our first all-staff meeting of the year, I issued what would turn out to be a falsehood disguised as a wish. After a fairly tumultuous academic year in 2014–15 (planning for a new teaching and learning center, overhauling our general education requirements, engaging in intense conversations over the College’s policy towards transgender admissions, and celebrating Barnard’s 125th anniversary), I promised the staff that 2015–16 would be calmer. “This year,” I announced, with a hopeful knock on the lectern, “will be quiet. We will be working hard, as always, but it will be a year of implementation rather than creation. This will be a year in which we deal with the issues and projects already on our plates, rather than add to them.”

I was wrong. Totally and completely wrong. Because by October of 2015, our campus—along with campuses across the country and the world—was roiling with a set of new and powerful issues; issues that go to the heart of what we do and who we are.

The first of these, divestment, represents an effort by student activists to use the financial power of colleges and universities to shape the debate around climate change. Simply put, groups like Divest Barnard want their colleges to refuse to invest any endowment funds in fossil-fuel companies. The argument is not so much that divestment will hurt these companies financially (because an endowment like Barnard’s is far too small to wield any real economic clout) but rather that it will send a powerful signal, shaming companies into changing their behavior, and encouraging consumers and investors to fight for, and invest in, cleaner technologies. Our students’ demands in this regard are clear. As expressed in an online petition, they want Barnard to “immediately announce their intent to divest from fossil-fuel investments, to urge the managers of funds held in trust on behalf of the endowment as beneficiary to do likewise, and to do so in a manner that is commensurate with the urgency of the climate destabilization now occurring, that is, with all due haste.”

The second issue concerns race, and the ways in which students of color—on our campus and elsewhere—feel marginalized and unsafe. This is a topic, of course, that has haunted our country since its inception, and which was brought to the fore again in 2014 by the deaths of several young black men at the hands of the police and the subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the fall of 2015, students at the University of Missouri, at Amherst and Princeton and Yale, raised their voices in protest against legacies of racial injustice, against slights and aggressions that surround them daily, and against systems that, while ostensibly inviting them in, have never fully welcomed or supported them. Or as one Columbia student stated during a speak-out in November: “If schools have opened their doors to us, they need to embrace everything that comes with that. That includes having the conversations about, ‘The way that you’re treating me is dehumanizing and you need to address it.’”

These waves of activism have engendered widespread, and widely variable, responses. Many critics have lambasted academic administrators for caving in to what they see as the whines and whinges of a coddled, fragile generation, and for imposing a series of protections—trigger warnings, safe spaces, racially clustered housing—that, they argue, actually trample on our values of free speech and integration. Others applaud the student activists for speaking truth to power, and for revealing the dirty underside of higher education.

My take is somewhat different—at least in the specific cases of fossil-fuel divestment and racial inequities on campus. To be blunt: I think the students are right. My generation, and the generations before me, have put our planet’s ecosystem in peril, and we have neglected, or failed, to redress the issues of racial inequity and injustice that have plagued our country for so long. As an institution, Barnard does undeniably consume and invest in fossil fuels. We are also named after a man who owned slaves, and for years we had both explicit and implicit quotas on various categories of students, including both African Americans and Jews. As we look to the future, we owe it to our students to set the best example we possibly can: to strive to create the better world we constantly claim we want them to inhabit, and to lead.

As I’ve said to various student groups, however, the devil is always in the details. Because it’s one thing to express support for cleaner energy sources and quite another to figure out how to manage a $300 million endowment without actually investing in anything “dirty,” or without losing sight of the College’s fiduciary responsibility. How big a hit are we willing to take in terms of our annual return?

One percent? Ten? And how does one define a truly clean portfolio when fossil fuel companies like Royal Dutch/Shell also invest in renewable energy sources and firms like Google and Amazon rely on coal-fired power plants to operate their server farms? Similarly, what can we do to wrestle seriously with President Barnard’s legacy of slave ownership, or with the quieter practices of earlier deans and presidents who barred black applicants from admission? What can we actually do to address the uncomfortable but very real fact that many students and faculty of color at Barnard are less happy and more dissatisfied than their white peers?

To begin, I believe that we need to start talking, not about easy fixes or symbolic statements, but about the messy, complicated, divisive issues of both climate change and racial inequities. To that end, Barnard’s board of trustees recently approved two presidential task forces, one on fossil fuel divestment, one on diversity. Each will be composed of student, staff, faculty, and trustee representatives that will spend the upcoming year examining these topics and then making specific recommendations to the Board. Separately, the College’s Faculty Development and Diversity Committee will continue its work to promote and support diversity among the faculty, and Dean Hinkson and her colleagues in Student Life will work with student leaders to consider how best to foster campus conversations on the topics of race and inclusion.

In the meantime, I also believe that it is our role as educators to teach our students about the parameters of power. Unlike their predecessors, today’s student activists have grown up in a world that is both hierarchical and flat. Access to wealth and opportunity remains rigidly hierarchical, more constrained by the socio-economic circumstances of birth than was the case in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet access to a voice is easy and instantaneous, causing a conflation, and confusion, between symbolic and actual power. Put more simply: in a world of social media—of Facebook and Snapchat and—it is relatively easy for passionate advocates to rally support around their causes. But petitions alone cannot deliver change. Because change has to come through power, and power must be won, usually through a lengthy, tedious, compromise-laden process. If our students can begin to embrace this process—if they can understand not only fighting for power, but using it—then their activism won’t just be successful. It will start to change the world.

Latest IssueSpring 2023