Student activists notched a major victory when Seattle University President Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., announced that the university would divest its endowment of investments related to companies holding fossil fuel reserves, becoming the first Jesuit university in the nation to do so. According to the statement, the process will begin in 2018 and conclude by 2023. Will other Jesuit colleges and universities follow suit?
Seattle University’s announcement, released on Sept. 19, noted the moral imperative underlining the movement. “As a Jesuit and Catholic university we have a special obligation to address the unfolding climate change crisis,” Father Sundborg said. “In his encyclical ‘Laudato Si,’ or ‘Care for Our Common Home,’ Pope Francis calls us to view this as a social and ecological issue of grave urgency that is connected to all around us and that has especially devastating consequences for society’s most vulnerable.”
Deanna Howes Spiro, the director of communications at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, in Washington, D.C., said the A.J.C.U. included the Seattle University announcement in its newsletter. “We congratulate Seattle University on finding the means to do this,” she said, adding that the A.J.C.U. would not take a position on the policy.
The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started in the 2000s, has become a mainstay of activism on college campuses.
The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started in the 2000s, has become a mainstay of activism on college campuses. Many student-led groups sponsor online petitions, education efforts and meet with administration officials, nudging some in leadership roles to change course. While Seattle University is the first of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities to commit itself to complete divestment of fossil fuel holdings, other institutions have modified their investment practices.
In June 2015, Georgetown University divested from coal companies but not all fossil fuels. The student organization G.U. Fossil Free has continued to push for bolder action, but victories since 2015 have been more incremental than sweeping. In June 2018, the Georgetown board of directors voted to divest from companies associated with tar sands oil extraction, after G.U. Fossil Free released a proposal in November 2017 urging the university to take that step.
Matt Hill, Georgetown’s media relations manager, declined to comment on whether or not the university would reconsider its divestment policy in light of Seattle University’s announcement.
At Santa Clara University, members of the Santa Clara Community Action Program have been advocating for fossil fuel divestment for years. Kimy Grandi Soriano, the current coordinator of S.C.C.A.P.’s empowerment branch, told America that she has been disappointed by the lack of productive dialogue between students and the administration. “The university’s stance was basically, ‘Well, good for them, but that’s not us’.... They maintained that the reason they are able to give so much in financial aid is directly related to [its investments], basically creating the narrative of ‘pick one or the other: divestment or scholarships for underprivileged students.’” Students later learned that “divestment was impossible because our money is in commingled funds,” Ms. Grandi Soriano said.
At Santa Clara University, members of the Santa Clara Community Action Program have been advocating for fossil fuel divestment for years.
Commingled funds—pools of money shared by multiple institutions—constitute “indirect investment.” Such investments have been cited by other universities whose holdings are mostly or totally indirect as a hurdle to divestment.
A spokesperson for Santa Clara University said the university is not considering divestment at this time.
Even as some current students have become discouraged by the lack of administrative interest, alumni have gotten more involved in climate justice activism, said Ms. Grandi Soriano. “I think students have just given up for now in regards to divestment after [perceiving] absolutely no willingness to change or even dialogue [from] the administration about this after years of trying,” she said.
Students at Boston College have experienced similar challenges. “We have to beg and pry for the university to even speak to us,” said Kyle Rosenthal, a member of Climate Justice Boston College and the Catholic Divestment Network, a coalition of student groups at Jesuit and other Catholic universities across the country. “In the past, some meetings with administrators have been granted, though they were contentious, and it did not appear they were willing to consider what we had to say. They currently stand firm that they will not hear from us and will generally no longer meet with us, portraying divestment as a lost cause.”
Like the student activists who make up S.C.C.A.P., the members of C.J.B.C. have hosted debates, awareness-raising events and circulated a petition that, to date, has been signed by 3,000 people—undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and alumni. According to Mr. Rosenthal, “Hundreds of alumni, current students and parents have also begun pledging not to donate to B.C. until it divests.”
Like students at other Jesuit universities, this cohort of Boston College students are “greatly concerned about the lack of transparency of our board of trustees,” he said, “especially when compared to Seattle University, which publishes brief meeting minutes.” (Matt Malone, S.J., America’s president and editor-in-chief, serves on the board of Boston College.)
When reached for comment, Jack Dunn, associate vice president in the Office of University Communications at Boston College, underscored the university’s opposition to fossil fuel divestment. “Boston College remains opposed to divestment from fossil fuel companies on the grounds that it is not a viable solution to the important issue of climate change,” he said in an email to America. “The University’s position is that the most effective way to limit climate change is for Boston College, along with corporations, organizations and individuals, to take active steps to reduce energy consumption and enhance sustainability measures.”
Mr. Rosenthal and the other members of the Catholic Divestment Network remain bullish about the long-term prospects for fossil fuel divestment. “We have also been in contact with the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities about spreading information about divestment and the Jesuit obligation to act. If even one institution acts—and many universities, dioceses, and provinces have—based on moral principles, then we all must.”