UW students fight for fossil fuel divestment

Students say it's time for the state's biggest research university to pull their money out of stocks or funds that invest in oil and gas companies. Can they convince the Board of Regents?
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Students say it's time for the state's biggest research university to pull their money out of stocks or funds that invest in oil and gas companies. Can they convince the Board of Regents?

Students on more than 300 campuses across the U.S. are behind a growing movement to get schools to drop stocks in oil, gas, coal and tar sands from their investment portfolios. Among them are students at the University of Washington, who rallied at the University’s Board of Regents meeting last Thursday to draw attention to the issue.

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If the Board of Regents agreed to fully divest the University of Washington's $2.3 billion portfolio, it would become the largest university in the nation to have done so so far. The University of Washington has stocks or holds them through mutual funds in Exxon, Chevron and Conoco Phillips among others.

Kyle Murphy, a senior in environmental studies and political science, says there was a lot of latent energy at the University of Washington to do something bigger about climate change. When the environmental group 350.org proposed its Fossil Free Campaign late last year and made a visit to Seattle, it became a vehicle for action, he says. Not only did the campaign inspire the City of Seattle to be one of the first to make a commitment to divest, it inspired students on campuses, including his own.

“The fossil fuel industry has been outspending environmentalists 8 to 1," he explains. "It’s no surprise things can’t get done in an environment like that.”

Only a handful of colleges have opted to divest so far nationwide, but that doesn’t discourage Murphy. ”This movement is still growing, and if you compare it to South Africa and apartheid, that movement went on for 7 or 8 years on campuses before divestment occurred," he says. "We’re well well ahead of that.”

Murphy says the goal of the divestment campaign is to damage the reputation of the fossil fuel industry. It's been a slow process, but it's a movement that's picking up speed. It has taken months of meetings with like-minded students just to figure out what divestment is about, says Murphy, but just last week, the campaign received the endorsement of the student governing body, the Associated Students of the University of Washington. They’ve also held meetings with the treasury office to discuss alternative investments and they presented a formal proposal to the Board of Regents before its meeting on June 13th.

University of Washington spokesperson, Norm Arkans, says he is aware of the campaign, but couldn't speak for the regents until he saw the formal proposal.

Arkans can’t predict whether the Regents will decide to divest from fossil fuels, but points out that the university is ranked among the top five environmentally sustainable or “cool” schools in the nation by Sierra Magazine. “We do a lot of work trying to minimize our carbon footprint and we have lots of people who are studying ocean acidification and the impacts of fossil fuels on the environment.”

On three occasions in the past, the UW has made significant changes to its investment portfolio — during apartheid in South Africa, genocide in the Sudan and human rights violations in Myanmar, the former Burma. Still, the Regents' primary fiscal responsibility, he notes, is to maximize returns.

If the university divests, will it make a difference in how the companies behave, he asks.  “Who’s it going to be hurting, us or the companies? And I think those are fair and legitimate questions people need to wrestle with.”

Unity College, a small institution in Maine, was the first to divest from fossil fuels. College president Stephen Mulkey says they haven’t lost any money. Divestment is about aligning investment policies with ethical values, says Mulkey, and with the mission of higher education, which is to disseminate knowledge in order to maintain or renew civilization. "Number two: it’s sending a message that you’re revoking the social license for these companies to continue business as usual," Mulkey explains. "In other words, it’s activism. This is activism. It’s not policy making.”

Academic reticence toward climate change is — in Mulkey's words — wholly inappropriate at this point in time. “It’s like being reticent about Newton’s Law of Gravitation or the Third Law of Thermal Dynamics.”

Higher education, he adds, should be at the forefront of efforts to comprehensively address global climate change and train the next generation of environmental leaders. “It will affect what they eat. It will affect where they go, how they spend their time. It will affect the jobs they hold. If we’re to prepare a generation of students to respond, we need to be reconfiguring essentially everything we do at the university.”

To date, at least four other colleges have also divested, including Green Mountain and Sterling Colleges in Vermont, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and College of the Atlantic in Maine. Two have specific environmental missions, says Mulkey, and all have administrations and faculty who are responsive and willing to engage with students.

At some bigger colleges, students' efforts have been met with resistance. In a referendum last year, 72 percent of Harvard's 3500 students voted to demand divestment, but they’re still campaigning to pressure university leaders. At Brown University, students convinced an advisory panel to urge the school to divest from more than a dozen U.S. coal companies. The school’s governing body heard arguments on the issue in May, but won’t vote on the matter until October.

There has been some movement though. Also in May, the University of California Santa Barbara Academic Senate became the first faculty organization to pass a fossil-fuel divestment resolution.

Student activist Murphy says one of his UW courses, Global Environmental Politics, played a role in inspiring him to become a divestment activist. The class, taught by professor Karen Litfin, emphasizes the importance of cooperation between institutions, governments and corporations to ensure climate survival for those most impacted by climate change.

“For me, politics is more than just what governments do or international organizations," Litfin explains. "It’s really how we organize ourselves together. I never teach anything without linking it to the person. What I teach I call person, planet, politics. So everything I teach comes home to who am I in relation to this?”

While not entirely sure divestment is the best strategy, Litfin says she’s proud of Murphy and other students working on the campaign. She also offers some advice to make the campaign more successful: Faculty also have portfolios. They too should be asked to divest.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.