Climate & Social Justice

‘The Seas Are Rising and So Are We’

Sunrise Brown launches campaign to sever Brown University’s financial and professional ties with the fossil fuel industry


Sunrise Brown's campaign calls for university officials to refuse money from fossil fuel companies or related foundations and increase funding support for Providence. (Rob Smith/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Student activists are turning up the heat on Brown University, demanding the state’s only Ivy League institution divest fossil fuel money from its research grants, ban fossil fuel companies from recruiting events and career fairs, and provide fossil fuel-free retirement plan options for faculty and staff.

Last week members of Sunrise Brown, the school’s local chapter of the national organization for political action on climate change, organized a rally on campus to launch their new DIRE campaign. The campaign, whose name is taken from the first two letters of dissociate and reinvest, calls for university officials to refuse money from fossil fuel companies or related foundations and increase funding support for the city of Providence.

Amid chants of “oil money/blood money” and “Brown owes a debt/we must reinvent,” students also called out other long-standing issues on campus, such as low wages for campus staff, and the gentrifying impact the university has on local neighborhoods, with one speaker calling Brown “an extractive force” in the city.

Organizers zeroed in on a usually wonky issue: the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) payments Brown University pays to Providence annually. Nonprofit institutions, such as the seven colleges and universities sprawled across the city, are traditionally exempt from regular taxes in most circumstances.

Brown pays Providence some $33 million to $34 million annually, a staggeringly low number considering the value of the university’s expanding property portfolio. A 2022 report from the city’s finance department showed that if Brown was taxed at the existing assessed rates, the university would owe more than $49 million.

Per state law, the city receives another $13 million from state government as part of its reimbursement program for cities and towns receiving PILOT payments.

“Without financial investment, Brown isn’t being a good neighbor,” said one student speaker addressing the crowd last week. “It should invest $50 million or higher into the city of Providence … make its resources available to everyone.”

The campaign is also urging Brown University to raise wages for campus workers. (Rob Smith/ecoRI News)

Late last month, Sunrise Brown released a report analyzing the impact of fossil fuel money on Brown University’s academic functions. According to the 26-page report, 63 journal articles have been published by Brown-affiliated authors since 2010 with funding from some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, including BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell.

“Before a project even begins, funding shapes which questions are asked,” according to the Sunrise Brown report. “It incentivizes researchers to avoid conclusions that may be unfavorable to the donor, thus threatening future partnerships.”

Between 2003 and 2019 Brown received $20,511,567 from nonprofits with known ties to the fossil fuel industry, with the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program donating more than $10 million, and Koch family foundations donating some $4 million.

In March 2020, Brown president Christina Paxson announced the university was halting investments in fossil fuel extraction in the school’s $6.5 billion endowment fund as part of a new slate of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and spur new green technologies.

But for climate activists on campus, it’s not enough. “Continuing to hold financial and social ties with fossil fuel companies thus makes Brown an enabler of the climate crisis,” according to Sunrise Brown.

The report recommends the university offer alternative retirement plans, with no fossil fuel investments in their portfolios, to give staff and faculty options to divest their retirement funds from companies “actively harming the future of their students.” It also advocates for a blanket ban on fossil fuel companies recruiting on campus, attending the school’s career fairs, or sponsoring events. Lastly, it argues Brown should prohibit all fossil fuel-funded research grants and gifts to the university.

The organizers behind last week’s rally say they are just getting started. Activists with Sunrise Brown said they are going to contact donors and alumni to express their concerns.

“It’s about exerting pressure on the university financially,” said Isaac Slevin, one of the rally’s organizers. “But it doesn’t have to be just financial pressure; it can also just be exerting pressure through solidarity.”

University spokesperson Brian Clark said the school received a copy of the report on Friday. “Our next step will be to review it in full,” wrote Clark in an email.

Join the Discussion

View Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.

Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.


We use cookies to improve your experience and deliver personalized content. View Cookie Settings