Across the Board: How Young People Lead on Climate
Former student trustees share their experiences leading climate action in the boardroom
As the generational impacts of climate change emerge throughout the world, universities have stepped to the forefront of the conversation around fossil fuel divestment. Many educational institutions teach their students to be responsible stewards of the environment; yet, their own financial practices often fail to represent these purported values: “U.S. university and college endowments control more than $600 billion of [fossil fuel] investments” (WSJ, 2020). One of the many reasons universities are out of step with the people they’re meant to serve is because their governance structures exclude necessary perspectives. Fortunately, there is growing momentum to reverse the tide among student activist groups. Still, progress is most apparent when young people are given a voice on their university boards: 60% of universities that have fully divested from fossil fuels have seats on their Board of Trustees specifically reserved for students or recent alumni (IEN, 2021). As institutions seek to align their investments with their educational missions, young people bring unique and valuable insight to the conversation that can steer higher education to a more sustainable future.
Meet the Panelists
As part of the 2021 Climate Action Pursuit, The Boarding School partnered with the Intentional Endowment Network to bring together three notable speakers to share their experience leading climate action on their respective Boards of Trustees.
Alexys Gilcreast, a University of New Hampshire (UNH) alumna, served as a member of the Executive Advisory Board at its Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, and the Committee on Investor Responsibility (CIR).
Dustin Liu served as the Student-Elected Trustee on Cornell’s Board of Trustees in the two years (2017–19) leading up to the Board’s decision to divest in 2020. He now serves as the 9th U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations.
Michael Davis graduated from the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA), where he served as the student representative on the University and its Foundation’s Board of Trustees. The Board decided to divest in June 2019, shortly after his graduation.
Journey to the Top
To open up the conversation, the panelists gave a brief overview of what led them to their position on their university boards. Alexys started her journey as a junior in college studying accounting. Because she was the president of an investment group at the business school, she was asked to join the CIR when it was formed in 2017 to support the UNH’s Invest and Finance Committee (I&F). Michael recalls entering UNCA passionate about environmental issues and joining the Student Government Association in freshman year as the Executive of Diversity and Inclusion. Likewise, Dustin started out as a leader in the Student Assembly and transitioned onto the Board. When he arrived on campus in 2015, Cornell was in the midst of a surge of activism towards environmental issues and in 2016, the Board voted against divestment.
In the Room Where it Happens
Following the introductory questions, the panelists shared more specific experiences relating to their individual contexts. Dustin elaborated on Cornell’s shared governance model, which came out of student activism in the late 1960s as a more representative system for university decision-making. A key takeaway from his time serving on the Board was that
“Understanding the practices and policies of how institutions are set up and the history of governance structures is incredibly important for students to make change.”
Identifying the university’s priorities and tailoring arguments to serve those goals allowed for more interest convergence and pathways to student voices being heard, instead of rejected. In regards to the divestment fund, Michael reached out to past student body presidents and other representatives in the UNC system for advice on how to craft the message so that it resonated with the Board. He also described the significance of the student trustee position as the person that Board members look to as the expert on student issues.
“You are the only voice that is on that Board that sees the day in and day out of what actually happens on your campus.”
Speaking from a strikingly different perspective than Dustin and Michael, Alexys shared that the I&F was very receptive and appreciative of student input from the CIR. The first meeting she had with the committee produced fruitful conversation, and three of the four recommendations they proposed were approved. In her junior year, she brought forth three primary goals to the committee — a policy of annual disclosure, IEN and UNPRI membership, and the allocation of some endowed funds to prime candidates of the ESG sleeve — all of which were met with open arms. Walking into the boardroom as a resource for others to lean on was a pinnacle experience for Alexys on campus.
When asked about the best strategy for approaching the divestment conversation, Dustin outlined his process of scheduling one-on-one meetings with all the senior administrators to ask them what decisions they were in charge of and how they make change. By knowing who to contact, students on campus can go directly to the person who can elevate the decision and push conversations forward. Michael reiterated that establishing relationships with trustees and senior leadership really helped him overcome roadblocks that he could not get through by himself, in addition to leaning on students who were fighting alongside him. Alexys advised taking a step back and understanding the key stakeholders: knowing the places they’re coming from and tapping into additional resources to strengthen the case.
As the webinar came to a close, Julia (Executive Director of The Boarding School) and the panelists shared ways to bring more people into the discussion of sustainability. Julia suggested borrowing strategies that have been effective at other universities and Alexys followed up by saying that engaging in conversations with other students through the SILK Network was a great way to get involved. As their closing remarks, Michael reaffirmed to young trustees attending that they’re work was important and necessary to lead change, and Dustin concluded with these final words of encouragement:
“I’m feeling the power of drawing back into history…. It’s just so important to document the steps that we have taken, be really visible with our storytelling and make sure that future generations of student leaders are still able to push that work forward.”
IEN Webinar: Across the Board — How Young People Lead on Climate. (n.d.). Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.intentionalendowments.org/young_leaders_on_boards
Wirz, M. (2020, July 14). Universities Cut Oil Investments as Student Activism Builds. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/universities-cut-oil-investments-as-student-activism-builds-11594719181?reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink