The working group was instigated in May this yearNick Safell/University of Cambridge

Members of the University gathered yesterday in a ‘town hall’ style meeting to discuss the issue of divestment, as part of an information-gathering exercise carried out by the University’s divestment working group.

During the ticketed event, which was held at Lady Mitchell Hall on Sidgwick site, speakers proposed a range of arguments both in opposition to and in support of divestment. Twelve speakers, who had submitted speeches to the working group prior to the meeting, were invited to address the audience. 

The working group was instigated in May this year, tasked with considering “the different approaches the University might take to issues associated with disinvestment from fossil fuel industries,” and additionally “how those approaches might impact upon the University’s mission ‘to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence’” The group is due to publish a report next year.

Members of the audience at the meeting on Wednesday, which included both undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as teaching and research staff, were welcomed to the meeting by Professor Dame Athene Donald, who chairs the group. In her opening remarks, Donald said that the meeting marked a “new departure” for the University, which she said had never before used such an approach to gathering opinions from its membership.

Arguments in opposition focused mainly on its potential financial implications for the University. Dr Alex Copley, a lecturer at the Faculty of Earth Sciences, said that, thanks to funding from the hydrocarbon companies in which the University is invested, researchers were able to conduct large-scale field investigations into carbon capture initiatives. Government funding, he said, was not available for ventures of this scale. He added that divesting from these companies would “send a clear message that we are not interested in working with them”.

Speakers also sought to counter the negative public image of hydrocarbon companies.  Copley cited a range of additional research areas in which the companies were involved, including biomedics. Doubts were also cast about the impact divestment would have in real terms on climate change. According to divestment opponents, after having divested its assets, the University would relinquish its position of influence on the boards of hydro carbon companies, and would therefore be unable to have a say in shaping the fossil fuel industry for the future.

Copley added that the decision to divest would be a “placebo,” as it would not directly lead to a reduction in the University’s carbon emissions. However, pro-divestment speakers, such as PhD student Tobias Müller, who said that such arguments “missed the point” of divestment. Müller argued that the symbolic purpose of divesting was to “bankrupt [fossil fuel companies] morally”.

Many speakers stressed the privileged position of the University as an influencer of global discourses. Mia Finnamore, Environmental Officer on Trinity College Students’ Union, said that Cambridge University, as an institution which “prides itself on being a world leader,” had a responsibility to “lead by example” on the issue.

Several speakers drew on personal experiences of the impact of climate change on their families, recounting the impact of typhoons in Japan and flooding in Bangladesh.

Other speakers included representatives from Cambridge Zero Carbon Society and Cambridge Defend Education, as well as members of Cambridge’s BP Institute.

Following the formal submissions, members of the audience were invited to make their own contributions. Dean of Emmanuel College Jeremy Caddick addressed the audience, citing his role as a former member of the University Council and pro-divestment campaigner. Contesting the efficacy of so-called “gradualist” approaches to divestment, he said: “We cannot make a short-lived splash, but we can commit ourselves to the growing list of institutions which have divested. We can commit ourselves to the future, or we can carry on looking backwards.”

Speaking to Varsity, Donald praised what she called the “open spirit” of the meeting. However, she went on to acknowledge that interest in the meeting had been lower than anticipated: “Perhaps I had thought, given the strength of feeling the students who did attend expressed, there would have been a larger audience or more submissions. Indeed, we had asked for the submissions to be sent in advance in case we were overwhelmed.” In the event, the meeting was attended by roughly fifteen University members, not including the pre-arranged speakers.


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However, in a statement released to Varsity, a spokesperson for Cambridge Zero Carbon society said that the establishment of the working group did not go far enough to acknowledge public support of divestment: “If the opinion of the University community had been taken honestly from the beginning, the Council would have set up a Divestment Working Group to set out a plan for divestment; not extend a well-concluded public debate for another year in the face of the climate crisis emergency”. The group also criticised the “scarce” amount of advertising for the meetings.

The statement also claimed that, prior to the town hall meeting, members of the group had hung a ‘Divest Cambridge’ banner from the Modern Languages Faculty building, only for it to be quickly “torn down” by Sidgwick site staff.

The next and final town hall meeting will be held on 9th November. Tickets are available for booking until 2nd November at 5pm. Written submissions must also be sent in before this time.