Fossil Free Pitt Coalition Press Release, Feb. 15, 2021

PITTSBURGH, PA — On Monday, February 15th at 9am, University of Pittsburgh students and allies will be installing a billboard in Oakland. The billboard, located at the intersection of Boulevard of the Allies and Bates, is in the heart of Oakland, where the university and many of its community members reside. Reading PITT, THE WORLD IS WATCHING, DIVEST NOW, the billboard is a part of a decade-long campaign from the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, pressuring Pitt’s Board of Trustees to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.

Due in large to pressure from the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition and Pitt community, the Board of Trustees formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Fossil Fuels last year, promising to review public comments and interview experts in order to provide the Trustees with “options on whether, to what extent, and via what methods the University, in its Endowment, should consider divestment from fossil fuels in existing and/or future investments.” As of mid-February, they have failed to release the report to the public, despite having promised to release it by the end of January 2021. The Board of Trustees meeting is expected to take place at the end of February.

“Asserting that there are higher priorities than investment returns should be profoundly simple—none of us would argue with that as individuals,” writes Tyler Bickford, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Senate Budget Policies Committee, to the Ad Hoc Committee. “But the fact that as an institution it takes seating a special committee to carefully study whether, in fact, we should be guided by higher priorities than investment returns is itself evidence that we’ve lost our way.” Bickford’s comment reflects many other community members’ concerns about to what extent the Ad Hoc Committee is another stalling tactic to avoid making a decision on divestment.

As the Ad Hoc Committee fails to communicate with the public, the billboard is Fossil Free Pitt Coalition’s opportunity to issue its demands, which include: 1) Chancellor Patrick Gallagher must immediately call the Board of Trustees to vote for divestment of fossil fuels; 2) Trustees with ties to the fossil fuel industry must abstain from the vote; and 3) the Board must involve the input of Pittsburgh community members in reinvestment decisions, including that of the organizations who have signed on to support the billboard.

The billboard has the support of local organizations including Pitt’s Free the Planet, CMU Against ICE, Center for Coalfield Justice, the Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh, Allegheny County’s Green Party, 350 Pittsburgh, JailbreakPGH, and 1Hood.

Emphasizing the third demand, Fossil Free Pitt organizer Abhishek Viswanathan says, “We call on the university to emphasize environmental justice in its management of the endowment henceforth, and ensure that community input is heard and acted upon while reinvesting that money.” In practice, environmental justice addresses how Indigenous Peoples, Black & Brown communities, and low-income communities here and in the global south stand at the frontlines of the ecological devastation of the climate crisis.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued risks of social gathering, organizers have had to resort to more unexpected tactics when pressuring the university to act. “Between working with people we’ve never met in person and coming up with COVID-safe actions, organizing online can be hard,” says Ellen Oordt, another organizer with Fossil Free Pitt. “However, it has given us a lot of opportunities to think outside the box to come up with creative solutions, including the billboard.”

“The goal of the billboard design is to emphasize the overarching impact of Pitt’s investment decisions on not only the Pitt community but the greater Southwestern Pennsylvania area,” Emma Gray says, the Fossil Free Pitt member who designed the billboard. “There are so many eyes waiting for Pitt to make the just decision.”

As the Fossil Free Pitt coalition anticipates the Board of Trustees meeting at the end of the month, they prepare to only ramp up the pressure. Kate Fissell, a Pitt staff member of over 20 years, writes, “If a scientist cannot pursue knowledge by harming human subjects, equally a trustee should not be able to pursue financial gain by harming human communities and the ecosystems they depend on.”