(Western Wire) In a major new weeklong push by anti-fossil fuel groups to pressure universities, financial institutions and organizations to sell off their investments in the fossil fuel industry, only a handful of students in the West participated. Desperate for wins, the student activists resorted to claiming victory for getting kicked out of university buildings, changing the discussion on campus and shutting down banks.
Pressuring universities across the country to divest their endowments of fossil fuel holdings is part of a “keep it in the ground” campaign run by New York-based activist group 350.org, which seeks to ban the production of oil, natural gas and coal. The organization’s “global divestment mobilization” occurred from May 5 to May 13 and was considered the third in a series of large-scale environmental protests, following the “March for Science” and the “People’s Climate March” in April.
In Colorado, an attempt to lobby the University of Colorado Boulder by sleeping outside the chancellor’s office for several days earlier this month ended after the lone student activist was asked to leave.
“It was time to go,” university spokesman Ryan Huff told the Daily Camera on May 3. “This has gone on for a week now. It was disruptive. We were unable to hold meetings in the conference room. Their message has been heard.” The university’s board of regents voted against divestment in 2015.
The student group behind the protests nevertheless counted their actions as a win, with the Daily Camera reporting that group member P.D. Gantert “said the group won the divestment fight despite the university’s refusal to financially cut ties with the oil and gas industry.”
“It’s absolutely miraculous what we’ve done in the last two weeks,” Gantert told the Daily Camera on May 5. “Now people on this campus actually know what this issue is. We’ve changed the conversation. We’ve won.”
A similar story played out in California last week, when University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) students campaigning for divestment declared victory after two university chancellors – who are not involved in making decisions about the endowment – released a statement of support for campus divestment groups.
Fossil Free UCSB, the student group pushing for divestment, called the announcement “a historic moment,” even though the announcement did not change the school’s investment policy. Decisions about the school’s endowment are made by the UCSB foundation’s board of trustees, as well as the board of regents for the University of California.
In an opinion piece published in the Santa Barbara Independent in 2015, Jagdeep Singh Bachher, chief investment officer of the regents, wrote that divestment from fossil fuels “grabs headlines but doesn’t actively address climate change.”
At University of Denver (DU), where the board of trustees set up a task force last summer to explore the issue, the divestment campaign has failed to gain traction even among students.
At a forum on divestment organized by the Independent Association of America, DU student Scott Albertoni said, “What I’ve experienced is probably four out of five students, when I ask them what is their opinion on divestment, they’re like, ‘Divestment? What?’ They can’t tell me what it is.”
“Even the 20 percent of students who know, ‘Yeah, I know what the group is,’ they can’t tell me the ramifications for the university,” Albertoni continued.
The task force concluded in January that divestment “would not be an effective means of mitigating global warming nor would it be consistent with the endowment’s long-term purpose to provide enduring benefit to present and future students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders.”
For a sense of the discussion on divestment on the DU campus months after the decision was announced, Western Wire reached out to Albertoni over the weekend for additional comment.
“Even today, after a school wide email went out by Chancellor Chop [about the board’s decision not to divest], students still do not know much about divestment or care,” Albertoni told Western Wire. “The sad part is I think more students are talking … wanting to find a new mascot for DU then they ever talked about [d]ivestment.”
A new report released earlier this month by Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business professor Hendrik Bessembinder assessed the costs of divestment on students and faculty. The report found that divestment would lead to a 15.2 percent reduction in endowment spending on average – a shortfall that would have to be made up for through increases in annual tuition by up to $3,265 or reductions in faculty spending by 11.5 percent. The report was commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Over the past several years, schools across the West that have rejected divestment include the University of Utah (June 2016), University of Denver (January 2017), Colorado College (May 2013), Fort Lewis College (April 2014), Pomona College (September 2013), Reed College (July 2014), Santa Clara University (June 2015), Seattle University (February 2014), Oregon State University (August 2014), University of Colorado (April 2015) and University of California (September 2015).