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What We Can Learn From Students Protesting Corporate Power on Campus

28/04/2014 17:00 BST | Updated 28/06/2014 10:59 BST

At Washington University in St. Louis, USA, there is a modern-day David and Goliath battle taking place that also has echoes of the McLibel trial. A small but determined contingent of students are standing up, or in this case sitting down, to battle the Goliath that they have named as Peabody Energy.

Peabody is the world's largest private-sector coal company and it prides itself on being 'a global leader in sustainable mining and clean coal solutions', a controversial statement in the age of human-induced climate change since coal is acquired by a highly polluting and emissions-heavy mining process even if emissions from burning it can be reduced. Promises from the coal industry relating to Carbon, Capture and Storage (CCS) have not yielded results and according to Guggenheim Fellow and writer Richard Conniff the myth of 'clean coal' was created by clever advertising campaigns funded by the biggest players in the fossil fuel game, while Rolling Stone magazine has revealed that Peabody Energy spent $5 million on lobbying in a single year.

It's arguable that the 'cleanest' option with coal is leaving it in the ground.

So what does a university have to do with coal? CEO of Peabody Greg Boyce sits on Washington University's Board of Trustees, which is why Students Against Peabody are taking a stance against what they consider to be unnecessary corporate involvement in their university. The students have been engaged in a sit-in outside their schools' admissions office for 17 days in a bid to urge the university to cut ties with Peabody. Their primary concerns are the coal mining emissions that are contributing to climate change, the communities displaced by mining operations, and Peabody's committal to coal mining that Students Against Peabody call an 'explicit condemnation of young people everywhere.'

This is a battle for the climate. Peabody is one of the organisations that funds The Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, which is based at Washington University. The research undertaken by The Consortium centres around making burning coal sustainable and 'clean'. Students Against Peabody say that research money, researchers, and graduate students who come go to Washington University to research renewable energy get funneled into researching 'clean coal' without necessarily realising that this is what they have signed up for beforehand, and that despite years of research 'clean' coal does not actually exist.

The students are makings an impressive stand against corporate power in a country where many corporations are bigger than countries. This is a battle for students everywhere whose voices are not heard in the conservative institutions that are our universities. Students Against Peabody's key demands include the removal of Mr Boyce from the University's Board of Trustees and that corporate interests are kept out of their Board in future, and that a system change occurs at their university so that students to have more voice in the decisions of the Board of Trustees. These demands may sound idealistic but that is an important role of our youth and no campaign was ever won without some ambitious ideology.

This is a fight for freedom of speech. The Board of Trustees has control over the faculty members who get tenure, and the students argue that Mr Boyce therefore has influence over which faculty members are retained and supported by Washington University. They say that several untenured faculty members have indicated that the corporate connection is a deterrent to them publicly support the sit-in. SAP have also launched a campaign called Alumni Against Peabody to persuade university alumni to call for the removal of corporate presence from the university and in the first 12 hours of its launch over 100 alumni had pledged to withhold over $10,000.

This is not the first time that individuals have chosen to stand up for what is right by sitting down, and we can all learn from what they are doing. Hopefully for the sake of the integrity of our universities and the health of our planet, it's a battle they will win.

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You can follow the Washington University students' protest on their website and on Twitter @WUStopPeabody