Metro

MIT fossil fuel protesters settle in for long haul

Nina Lytton, a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School, has spent many days joining fellow protesters in the hallway outside the offices of MIT president L. Rafael Reif. She has knitted 62 leis so far.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Nina Lytton, a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School, has spent many days joining fellow protesters in the hallway outside the offices of MIT president L. Rafael Reif. She has knitted 62 leis so far.

CAMBRIDGE — They have become a familiar sight lining the wide hallway outside the stately second-floor offices of MIT president L. Rafael Reif.

For the past 116 days, students, professors, and alumni who are pressing the college to shed fossil fuels from its investment holdings have been calmly occupying this slick, hard stretch of the Infinite Corridor.

By all accounts, it is a very MIT protest. Students coordinate shifts with a shared spreadsheet; they bring textbooks and doctoral theses; and a computer program reminds them to stand and stretch every 30 minutes.

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Oh, and they don’t plan to give up.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
For 116 days, students, professors, and alumni have been holding a sit-in to press MIT to shed fossil feusl from its investment holdings.
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“When we do something at MIT, we do it thoroughly,” said Nina Lytton, a 1984 graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management who comes every day and passes the time knitting. She has finished 62 furry Hawaiian leis so far.

Organizers believe this is the longest-running divestment sit-in for a college, breaking Swarthmore College students’ 32-day record several months ago. That Pennsylvania protest was one of the many divestment campaigns that erupted across the world last year, including at Harvard University.

The group organizing the protest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fossil Free MIT, has asked that the school divest its endowment from coal and tar sands and make the campus carbon neutral by 2040. It is also pressing for the institute to create an ethics advisory council to combat “disinformation” about climate change.

The school in October released its five-year plan to confront climate change, which did not include divestment. Reif said maintaining the institute’s ties with oil and energy companies, who fund research at MIT, is a more effective way to tackle the problem.

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Fossil Free MIT members began meeting with administrators just a few days after the sit-in began Oct. 22 and think they might be close to an agreement for more action by the college.

Until then, they’re enjoying camaraderie and the quiet exhilaration that has come from making a stir.

By now, administrators and secretaries know them well.

“Hey Karla,” one student said Friday as Karla Casey, Reif’s executive assistant, passed by. Casey waved back and smiled. One day, an administrator brought them scones.

Across from the door Casey carefully shut behind her, graduate student Michael DeMarco sat on a yoga mat as yellow pieces of paper, dotted with equations, escaped his stack of legal pads.

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“You sort of wish that you didn’t need to be here,” said DeMarco, who studies physics. He brought along a computer, two textbooks, and a binder.

‘It’s great to see our students become politically active.’

John D. Sterman,  MIT business professor

Usually, DeMarco sits the night shift, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. In the evening, employees are relaxed, he said.They ask how his day was, he asks what they’re doing with their kids that weekend. It’s all genuine, but it’s also part of the strategy.

“We develop the more mundane relationships that are crucial for bridging the gaps,” DeMarco said.

The administration did not respond to a request for comment about the negotiations.

MIT freshman Carissa Skye juggled protesting, studying, eating, and a bit of exercising outside the offices of the institute’s president.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
MIT freshman Carissa Skye juggled protesting, studying, eating, and a bit of exercising outside the offices of the institute’s president.

At the end of the line of about a dozen students on the floor Friday morning, freshman Carissa Skye perched on an exercise ball and did homework on waves and vibrations. She will miss the community in the hall when this is over, she said.

The students admit it’s harder to get homework done here, but they see this as an equally important part of their time at MIT. Many work in labs that research renewable energy or climate change.

The protesters purposely don’t wear headphones so passersby won’t hesitate to stop and ask why they’re there. By this point, many people don’t have to ask.

At the other end of the yoga mat sat MIT business professor John D. Sterman, wearing a suit and tie. Sterman said many of his colleagues support his participation, but a few faculty told him this approach won’t be effective. He couldn’t disagree more.

“There’s this attitude [at MIT] that there’s a technological solution to every problem in the world,” said Sterman, who has taught at MIT since 1981.

Sterman participated in his own share of protests in the 1980s, against nuclear arms, he said. What’s missing from the climate change debate isn’t science, but activism and political will, he said.

“It’s great to see our students become politically active after decades of apathy and self-centered careerism,” he said.

Beside him, Benjamin Scandella was writing his graduate thesis. The sit-in has forced him to get up earlier and manage his time more effectively. He will be glad to return to his lab eventually, but he will miss the hallway.

“This hall feels different than it did a few months ago,” Scandella said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.