The upper floor of the Mount Allison administration building rang with songs, chants and laughter on March 22 after more than 50 students moved in seeking a face-to-face meeting with university president Robert Campbell.
A couple of hours later the students got their hour-long meeting, but afterwards many shed tears and expressed bitter disappointment. As Campbell left the meeting, they staged a “die-in” to represent the victims of oil and gas exploitation. Some agreed to remain in Centennial Hall all night as part of their four-year campaign to persuade the university to sever its investment ties with the fossil fuel industry. However, the students decided later to leave the building at 6 p.m.
The five hour occupation of the administration building was an extension of the “camp-out” in the academic quadrangle that began on Monday, March 20, when organizers for the group, Divest MTA pitched tents and started sleeping there in snow, rain and sub-zero temperatures. On Tuesday, March 21, they held a teach-in where members of faculty gave them enthusiastic support while administrators ignored them talking to the media instead.
Then, according to a Divest MTA news release, the students learned of an e-mail that Campbell had sent to the university’s highest governing body, its Board of Regents. “Mount Allison president Dr. Robert Campbell explicitly asserted that the University had no plans to engage with Divest MTA directly or negotiate the camp-out’s presence,” the news release said.
On March 22, the students moved into Centennial Hall seeking to meet with Campbell. When the meeting finally happened, Divest MTA leaders asked that the door remain open so all of the students sitting outside the room could hear what was said.
Robert Campbell says no
As the students listened in the outer room, Divest MTA leaders Tina Oh and Alex Lepianka asked Campbell to begin the process of shedding endowment fund investments in the fossil fuel industry. They called on the Mt. A president to recommend such divestment to the university’s Board of Regents.
“It’s not my role,” Campbell answered.
“It is your role,” Oh responded. “As president of [this] public institution, students get to decide what is your responsibility,” she added.
“Thank you for being so passionate about it, but I disagree,” Campbell said, adding that as president, he must listen to all constituencies, including students, faculty, alumni and donors. He noted that students are represented on the university’s governing bodies and have a voice in their decisions.
Lepianka said the process is undemocratic adding that after four years of campaigning, students have gotten nowhere on the issue of severing the university’s ties with oil and gas.
“We live in a society where not everyone agrees,” Campbell said. “You have not got the result you wanted. You win some, you lose some.”
Both Oh and Lepianka argued that as president, Campbell has a moral responsibility to sever the university’s ties to fossil fuels when the industry threatens the lives of so many, including the indigenous peoples the university claims to respect.
“If you are doing nothing, then you are doing evil work,” Oh added.
“I don’t agree with your language or your characterization,” Campbell said.
Students and climate change
As the meeting ended, Campbell asked the students to leave the administration building.
The students listening in the outer room began chanting, “Shame. Shame. Shame…Tell me what bureaucracy looks like. This is what bureaucracy looks like.”
Then, Campbell gingerly stepped over their “dead” bodies as he made his way to teach a scheduled class.
“Robert Campbell has just stepped on his students as he left the building,” said Divest MTA organizer Naomi Goldberg.
In the aftermath of the meeting, several students wept.
Naia Noyes-West said that students, unlike older people, were born into a world where the devastating realities of climate change already existed — realities that will weigh heavily on them and future generations.
She added that as students at Mt. A, they were learning about such issues from their professors.
“We learn about these awful things,” she said, “and then are expected to do nothing.”
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report.
First published by The Wark Times.