Rooted in History, Branching into Activism: The Vanderbilt Divestment Movement

On November 13, 2022, the Vanderbilt University community was in mourning, not for a person, but for a tree. Vanderbilt’s Bicentennial Oak, estimated to be around 250 years old, fell on the evening of November 12. It was soon determined that the tree collapsed due to “age-related decay.” Saddened community members attended a candlelight vigil days later, laying flowers at the fallen tree and holding a 250-second moment of silence.

As the only tree on campus to predate the university’s founding, the Bicentennial Oak was a symbol of Vanderbilt’s history and served as a landmark for over a century of Vanderbilt students and faculty. It was recognized as a landmark tree by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council and was one of the largest trees in the Vanderbilt Arboretum. Vanderbilt prides itself on its arboretum designation, as the campus was accredited as a Level II arboretum by ArbNet in October 2020.

A mere two days after the death of the Bicentennial Oak, Vanderbilt announced its Princeton Review ranking as the seventh “top green college” in the United States. Although some strides have been made to reduce Vanderbilt’s carbon footprint, including reaching carbon neutrality in the spring of 2021 and transitioning to an all-electric shuttle fleet, the university is slow to act on one major sustainability initiative: fossil fuel divestment. Students were quick to point out the irony of an administration supposedly devastated over a tree’s falling and yet doing very little to address the university’s unsustainable investments.

According to the Vanderbilt 2022 Financial Report, Vanderbilt has approximately $723 million invested in natural resources, which can include oil, gas, and timber. Wood products are some of the largest drivers of forest degradation, which often eventually leads to deforestation. Vanderbilt mourns the loss of one old tree, yet the university’s investments are directly contributing to deforestation and other exploitations of thousands of others. When will Vanderbilt align the university’s investments with its commitment to conservation?

The Vanderbilt Divest Coalition challenges Vanderbilt to reevaluate its priorities and take meaningful action toward a greener, more sustainable future. We call on Vanderbilt to commit to fully divesting its endowment from fossil fuels and other harmful commodities. We believe that Vanderbilt has a moral obligation to divest from industries that are threatening its students’ and the planet’s future. From hosting climate justice discussions to organizing protests and demonstrations, our coalition hopes to educate the Vanderbilt community on the harms of the university’s endowment remaining invested in fossil fuels and pressure the administration to move toward divestment.

In the wake of the Bicentennial Oak’s tragic fall, Vanderbilt is reminded of the delicate balance between honoring the past and safeguarding the future. Although countless trees still scatter Vanderbilt’s campus, the divestment movement will continue to advocate for sustainable investments to protect other unlucky trees across the planet that are less prized than the Bicentennial Oak. Vanderbilt has an opportunity to transform not only its campus but also its legacy. It’s time for Vanderbilt to address its dirty endowment and to strive for harmony between its history, values, and the overall well-being of the Earth.

RCC Fellow – Ellie Crone – Vanderbilt University

RCC Fellow Ellie Crone is a junior at Vanderbilt University double majoring in Public Policy and Climate Studies. As Co-President of DivestVU, Ellie leads the Vanderbilt Divest Coalition to advocate for fossil fuel divestment at Vanderbilt. On campus, Ellie is also a student researcher in the Vanderbilt Climate, Health, and Energy Equity Lab and the Vanderbilt Drinking Water Justice Lab and serves as President of Vandy Votes. She hopes to pursue a career at the intersection of climate policy, environmental law, and social justice.