In 2018, Anna Liebowitz ’09 got a phone call from an Annual Giving representative that ended up inspiring a movement.
Liebowitz, who had studied molecular biology at Princeton and was earning her master’s degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia at the time, was increasingly alarmed by climate change. She had been looking for ways she could have an impact. On that call, she made a decision: She told the rep she didn’t feel comfortable donating because Princeton’s endowment included investments in fossil-fuel companies.
“He sounded like he was smiling,” Liebowitz says, noting she had asked him to relay her message to his supervisor. “He was like, ‘Great, will do.’ And that was the end of that.”
But that was hardly the end. In the fall of 2019, after polling peers on Facebook and through email, Liebowitz penned an open letter to Princeton pledging to withhold donations until the University divested from the fossil-fuel industry.
“Divestment is certainly not the only approach, but it’s one approach that might give normal people more influence than [trying to get involved in] building transmission lines or big policy decisions. Divestment feels like a way to bring down to scale the enormousness of the problem.”
— Anna Liebowitz ’09
That letter led to the formation of Divest Princeton, a unusual coalition of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other community members who have forged deep friendships while advocating for the University’s full divestment and dissociation — an end to all partnerships, including research sponsorships and on-campus recruiting — from fossil-fuel companies. Divest Princeton also calls for the reinvestment of these funds into sustainable businesses. Now posted on the Divest Princeton website, the letter includes more than 3,100 signatures and commitments to pause donations to the University’s $35.8 billion endowment.
“To me, I think the question was, ‘What is the closest lever that I can pull on?’ ” says Liebowitz, who now serves as an analyst on the Task Force on Environmental Sustainability and Resiliency in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. “Princeton and its enormous endowment seemed like a really powerful lever, and one that might care what I think a little bit, especially if I could get a lot of people to also join in. Divestment is certainly not the only approach, but it’s one approach that might give normal people more influence than [trying to get involved in] building transmission lines or big policy decisions. Divestment feels like a way to bring down to scale the enormousness of the problem.”
Nearly three years after it was formed, members of Divest Princeton celebrated in September when the University announced it was divesting from fossil-fuel companies and cutting ties with 90 entities active in the thermal coal and tar sands industries. Since then, Liebowitz and her partners have been calling for the University to divest from private fossil-fuel holdings and end BP’s longtime research sponsorship of Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI).
“There’s still a lot more to go,” says former co-coordinator Aaron Serianni ’25.
‘This idea had weight’
In the fall of 2019, after drafting the open letter, Liebowitz enlisted the help of Aitalohi (Aita) Amaize ’07, a former psychology major who was earning her Ph.D. in health services administration from the University of Maryland, to distribute it. The timing couldn’t have been better. Climate activism was on the rise. That September, more than 600 Princeton students, faculty, and community members joined others around the world for a series of climate strikes to demand action. A few days later, Greta Thunberg famously berated world leaders at the United Nations for “failing” younger generations. Liebowtiz’s letter began to circulate quickly, with hundreds of alumni signing on.
In October, Liebowitz and Amaize worked with Tom Taylor *21, who was earning his master’s degree in public affairs at Princeton and was involved in the University’s environmental activism scene, to get current students and community members involved.
“That’s when we started getting lots more signatures from people on campus,” Liebowitz says. “A campus student group got rolling, also. And we were all called Divest Princeton.”
“I think the challenge has always been that there are many good petitions, but you need weight behind the petition for it to mean something,” says Taylor, who now researches climate solutions for Atlas Public Policy in Washington, D.C. “This idea had weight, so it was very exciting. That became our first organizing center point.”
The Divest Princeton group boasted another feature that set it up for long-term success: It was innately multigenerational. Thanks to the open letter, alumni were involved from the very beginning, meaning the group wouldn’t suffer from a loss of drive or enthusiasm once students graduated. And while the unofficial headquarters for the group migrated to campus, spearheaded by student co-coordinators, alumni continue to play a key role in keeping the group going.
“It’s allowed the movement to have some continuity,” says Lynne Archibald ’87, who first heard about Divest Princeton through her daughter, Marta Cabral ’16, when Archibald was in the process of taking over her parents’ finances and considering divestment from fossil fuels on their behalf. Archibald now applies her years of experience with nonprofit management to run Divest Princeton’s social media strategy.
“There’s always someone taking over: Someone’s checking the email box, someone’s checking the direct messages,” she says.
Princeton had seen other campus groups, such as the Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative, petition for divestment starting in 2013. But those groups faded away as students moved on.
“Alumni never leave,” says Taylor. “What we’ve done a really good job of doing is just being there and staying there. And I honestly think that’s what fueled the [University’s] decision to release this divestment announcement.”
Additionally, the influx of new student leaders each year — typically two first-year students — gives the group vigor, fresh ideas, and longevity, says Serianni, who until recently was a co-coordinator.
“As activists we always need to adapt and make sure that our campaign is the most effective,” he says. “Being both a student and student activist is a lot of work. Balancing the two is challenging, so it’s good to take a step back sometimes and be able to rebalance.”
Divest Princeton member John Huyler ’67 credits the group’s generational diversity with providing much-needed access to a breadth of skills and experience. There’s always someone “to pick up the baton and contribute” or provide the answer needed to push forward, he says.
Huyler got involved with Divest Princeton after tuning in to the group’s first virtual discussion, held during Reunions 2020. “I just was blown away by their passion, their smarts, their commitment, their creativity, their articulateness, the extent to which they were organized,” he says.
As an avid outdoorsman living in Colorado, he began to think about his daughter — and about the children she might have. “And it struck me like a lightning bolt that, particularly because of my age, having been out of Princeton for over 50 years, I could have leverage,” he says.
Huyler reviewed Divest Princeton’s open letter and noted there were “precious few” signatures from older classes. He made it his mission to drum up signatures from his peers, starting what would become a yearslong commitment to participating in and helping Divest Princeton with its programming and initiatives.
‘The friendships are amazing’
Many members of Divest Princeton have similar stories of personal interest in and commitment to the cause. Divest Princeton member Bob Herbst ’69, for example, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Princetonian during his junior year calling for divestment from companies supporting apartheid in South Africa. His passion for justice led him to become a criminal defense and civil litigation attorney. He now lends legal advice to Divest Princeton, and was instrumental in helping the group draft and file a legal complaint in 2022, alleging the University “violated its duty as a nonprofit by investing in an industry that is causing harm to its community and students.”
One of the group’s current co-coordinators, Alex Norbrook ’26, says Divest Princeton played a significant role in his decision to attend Princeton. At his high school in Baltimore, he had been part of the Sunrise Movement, a nationwide climate activist group. He saw that Princeton didn’t have a Sunrise Movement, but it did have Divest Princeton. “I knew that fossil-fuel divestment is a huge issue on college campuses. That was a fight I could see myself joining,” he says.
Indeed, Divest Princeton “is self-generated and remains an open, passionate, personal commitment by those of us who are involved,” says Huyler.
And despite the fact that the majority of its members are off campus and communicate virtually, many close friendships have sprouted.
“Lynne Archibald is one of my best friends because of this,” says Huyler, who adds that he has also not only collaborated with former student leader Hannah Reynolds ’22 on several Daily Princetonian articles, but he even attended her graduation. Also, last summer Huyler went hiking in Boulder with Serianni, who had a summer internship in the area.
“Reunions ’22 was huge for us. So many of us met for the first time in person,” Archibald says. She fondly tells of hosting Taylor and his extended family, along with her own family members and several other Princeton graduates, in November for drinks at her home in Lisbon, Portugal. Last spring, when traveling in New York, she met another Divest Princeton member in Brooklyn for coffee and plans to do so again.
“The friendships are amazing,” Archibald says, adding that there is a Divest Princeton Slack channel that has resulted in numerous networking connections in the climate sphere. “I know of at least one job that came about because of a Divest Princeton connection.”
‘The whole point of divestment’
Divestment at Princeton is not a new concept. It was originally proposed — and eventually adopted — during Herbst’s era to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. In 2006, the University divested from companies complicit in genocide in the region of Darfur, in western Sudan. And divestment from fossil-fuel companies has gained wide support across various sectors, with more than 1,500 institutions worldwide divesting, or announcing plans to divest, a whopping $40.5 trillion from fossil fuels, according to the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Database.
“The whole point of divestment is to make the University a better place for the planet and all the people and biodiversity on the planet,” Archibald says.
Further, given the relatively small percentage (about 4.5%) of Princeton’s endowment that had been invested in fossil fuels, divestment seems like a no-brainer, Huyler says. “It’s such peanuts. Why would you continue to risk the reputation of the University?”
Dissociation is another main sticking point for Divest Princeton. The group says the University should not have any relationships with companies connected to fossil fuels, meaning no recruitment on campus and, most critically, no research partnerships. Divest Princeton members point out that the CMI, an academic research program aimed at developing solutions to climate change, is sponsored by BP. Exxon Mobil and BP also funded Princeton’s Net-Zero America study, which looked at ways for the U.S. to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. (Exxon is currently on the list of companies subject to dissociation.)
“It’s this subtle co-opting of climate research in a way that allows them to continue their business model,” Norbrook says of these sponsorships. “It’s a way of using Princeton research to legitimize their desire to continue extracting fossil fuels — and also, to make them look green, a kind of greenwashing: ‘We’re not polluting because we’re funding Princeton’s leading landmark climate research group.’”
When asked whether the University would like to comment for this story, spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss directed PAW to previous statements. In announcing divestment and dissociation in September, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 pointed to plans to offset lost research funding, saying: “Princeton will have the most significant impact on the climate crisis through the scholarship we generate and the people we educate. The creation of this new fund is one of several ways that the University is helping to provide Princeton researchers with the resources they need to pursue this work.”
‘We really love Princeton’
While Divest Princeton welcomed the September announcement, its members stressed that their work is far from over.
“Our goal is still full fossil-fuel divestment and terminating all research partnerships with fossil-fuel companies on campus,” Serianni says.
To that end, the group is applying pressure in new ways. At a February meeting of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), for example, a student affiliated with Divest Princeton asked Eisgruber whether the University would consider adding BP to its dissociation list in light of recent news that BP is scaling back its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. (BP had originally set a goal of reducing those emissions by 35% to 40% by 2030, but amid record profits due to the high cost of crude oil, the company announced it would plan to cut emissions by 20% to 30% instead. It also announced it would continue to grow its oil and gas production until 2025.)
“There are good reasons for engineering connections with sectors of the fossil-fuel industry, that benefits can come from collaborations,” Eisgruber said of research funding in general at a CPUC meeting in November. “Those collaborations are valuable in terms of the research that they produce.”
Taylor and Reynolds say Divest Princeton is also working to hold the University accountable for its existing promises to divest and dissociate, and to push regularly for a timeline and progress updates. When asked about this in February, Eisgruber said Princeton University Investment Co. immediately began the process and that it was ongoing.
Norbrook added that he’d like Divest Princeton to partner with groups at other universities — and for universities to partner with each other more broadly — to share resources, generate more pressure, and enact more extensive change.
“[We want] not just to disinvest from harmful businesses and fossil fuels,” he says, “but to reinvest that money into sustainable technologies, businesses, and ways to remedy our legacy of supporting harmful companies and governments.”
“We all really love Princeton,” says Archibald. “It’s such a privilege to go to Princeton. We’d like to see the University really lead.”
Agatha Bordonaro ’04 is a freelance editor and writer based in New York City.