When you first arrive at Northeastern’s campus, you may notice the university’s accomplishments in making the campus more environmentally friendly. The dining halls tout their commitment to sustainability with signs about saving water, using more eco-friendly food in their cooking, and reducing plastic waste. The newest building on campus, ISEC, is “on track for LEED Gold certification” by incorporating innovative technologies to reduce water and electricity use. And Northeastern was designated one of the top 50 Green colleges by the Princeton Review in 2019. But Northeastern’s commitment to sustainability does not run past the surface level.
In October 2016, over 100 students gathered on Centennial Common to protest the university’s investment in fossil fuels. A university representative told the students, who were part of a group known as DivestNU, that around nine percent of the $729 million endowment, or around $65 million, was indirectly invested in fossil fuels through investment funds. The students had pushed the university to divest from those investment funds through a four-year campaign, starting with a student referendum which had passed overwhelmingly two years before. In the summer of 2016, Northeastern released a statement that they would invest $25 million of the endowment in sustainability, which the DivestNU group views as a deliberate tactic to avoid taking the steps toward divestment that they had worked to negotiate. They camped out on the grass for 13 days protesting this decision, but the university refused to confront their connections to the fossil fuel industry, and continues to do so to this day.
Perhaps most telling of these disingenuous contradictions is the Vice Chair of Northeastern’s Board of Trustees: Edward G. Galante. Galante, who is currently the independent Director of Clean Harbors — which has racked up nearly $10 million in environmental violations — retired in 2006 after more than 30 years with Exxon Mobil Corporation. He most recently served as a Senior Vice President and member of the Management Committee. His main jurisdiction included the worldwide Downstream business: Refining & Supply, Fuels Marketing, Lubricants and Specialties and Research and Engineering. He also was responsible for Exxon Mobil's corporate Public Affairs and Safety, Health and Environmental activities. As many may be aware, Exxon Mobil has been one of the most detrimental companies in contributing to the climate crisis. According to Polluter Watch, Exxon Mobil ranks #2 in historic greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon also deliberately spread misinformation and deflected responsibility about the effects of their business of oil and gas on global warming, even though they knew as early as 1978 about the catastrophic effects that the continued use of fossil fuels would have on the planet.
Northeastern’s ties to the fossil fuel industry is completely contrary to their presentation as a “green campus”, as well as demonstrates their disinterest in following what the student body wants.
On the ‘Student Life’ webpage, Northeastern’s “vibrant campus” is described as a “one-of-a-kind sanctuary of lush green spaces and tree-lined pathways,” but this claim is increasingly losing its validity. Starting this summer, Northeastern began a campus-wide paving campaign in preparation for Covid-19 testing and overflow dining infrastructure. Most recently they paved over the Science Quad, a beloved sliver of green space just around the corner from the library. This comes a week after Northeastern paved over another beloved open space, the sand volleyball court in the West Village area. While the administration is being forced to reconcile with Covid-19 accommodations, eliminating green spaces where students can seek refuge outside and have an opportunity to connect with nature seems counter-intuitive to the overall health and wellbeing of our community.
From an urban planning and resilience perspective, replacing green spaces (either with gravel or concrete) exasperates climate impacts such as urban heat islands. In a city that is already deeply vulnerable to warming and concentrated hot spots, Northeastern’s decision to eliminate green spaces on campus seems even more negligent.
Housing Justice, Racial Justice, Environmental Justice...It’s All the Same Fight
As you become acclimated with Northeastern University and its surrounding neighborhoods and communities, you will most likely hear about Roxbury, Fenway, and Mission Hill. Due to limited campus housing options, most Northeastern students join the mass exodus of third years that settle into apartments on ‘the Hill’ and throughout Roxbury and the Fenway neighborhoods.
But this occupation by Northeastern undergraduate students creates a shortage of housing, causing rents to quickly rise beyond the means of local tenants. The median home price in Roxbury increased 67% from $285,000 in 2006 to $476,250 in 2016 (cumulative rate of inflation during that time was under 20 percent).
Multiple forces are working against frontline communities in Boston and Northeastern’s unfettered and rapid expansion only worsens the severity of crises like climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, rampant racism, and economic disenfranchisement.
Okay, but What Can I Do?
You may be reading this thinking, “wow, Northeastern is a really shitty place,” which, in many ways, the actions of Northeastern administration are really shitty.
But concurrent with environmental negligence from the administration is a widespread network of passionate students who are dedicated to climate action and environmental justice. One example of a student organization working to combat these forces of oppression and inaction is Sunrise Northeastern. Currently we are working on a huge initiative with other student orgs on campus, professors, and community partners called the Green NEU Deal. The initiative is inspired by the Green New Deal, a “10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities,” that was mobilized by the Sunrise Movement and introduced as a resolution in the United States House of Representatives by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14th).