Seattle University fully divests from fossil fuel investments, student persistence worked

Seattle University fully divests from fossil fuel investments, student persistence worked

Andrew Binion (The Newsroom, Seattle University)

Ecojesuit shares the article, Seattle University First in the State to Divest from Fossil Fuels, by Andrew Binion of The Newsroom, announcing Seattle University’s 100 percent divestment from fossil fuels and going towards socially conscious investing. The SU divestment story also recognizes the key role of students “whose persistence was credited for ultimately persuading university leaders to back away from fossil fuel investments.”

Seattle University (SU) is the first university in Washington state and the first Jesuit Catholic university in the US to fulfill this commitment to divest its endowment portfolio of fossil fuel investments as of 30 June, while charting a new course of socially conscious investing.

“It really started with student initiative,” says Joseph Gaffney, ’67, who at the time was a member of the Board of Trustees and chair of the Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) working group formed by former SU President Stephen Sundborg SJ to investigate divesting.

Ames Fowler, ’15, one of the students to begin the push to divest in 2012, says divestment isn’t the solution for climate change, but it helps shape how the economy works. “It’s not flashy,” he says. “It doesn’t fix the issue. It doesn’t stop the great coral reef from bleaching, but we have to change the scaffolding of our economy if we want a different world. And this is a rearranging of the scaffolding of our economy in a small, but critical, way.”

Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’ calls for action on the climate crisis and care for our common home, praising work like that of the SU students whose persistence was credited for ultimately persuading university leaders to back away from fossil fuel investments.

In announcing the Board of Trustees decision, Father Sundborg said that as a Jesuit and Catholic university, SU has a special obligation to address the unfolding climate crisis. He emphasized Pope Francis’ call to see the “grave urgency” of the moment.

“We join with others also at the forefront of the growing divestment movement and hope our action encourages more to do the same,” said Fr. Sundborg. “Together, we can amplify our collective voice and accelerate the transition to clean, fossil-free energy sources.”

Since SU’s announcement in 2018, six other Jesuit universities made some level of commitment to divest, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. In addition to leading the way for Jesuit universities, SU has also shown the path forward for other institutions of higher education in the state. Last year, the University of Washington committed to a deadline of 2027 to exit from direct fossil fuel investments.

SU became the first Jesuit university in the country in 2018 to pledge 100 percent withdrawal from publicly traded fossil fuel investments. According to the university’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, SU is also the first Jesuit university in the world to pledge to fully remove its money from investments in fossil fuels.

In June 2022, the board took the step of instituting a requirement that endowment investments include an evaluation for the environmental, social and governance (ESG) impacts, in addition to the customary criteria such as investment performance and diversification.

“This directive is becoming more common in universities’ endowment investment practices,” says Bret Myers, Director of Treasury and Risk Management in SU’s Office of Finance, who added that these steps are also in line with key priorities the university has set for itself as part of the Laudato Si’ Action Plan (LSAP).

One of the LSAP pillars is “Ecological Economics,” acknowledging that “the economy is a sub-system of human society, which itself is embedded within the biosphere—our common home.” This goal connects directly to decisions around future investments, such as divesting from fossil fuels and promoting ethical investments.

Divestment is a process of withdrawing investments from companies that hold fossil fuel reserves like coal, oil and natural gas. The money SU uses to invest – its endowment, made up of donations to the university – was valued as of June at US$ 285 million. Proceeds from the investments pay for things like student scholarships.

When the Board of Trustees voted to approve the five-year plan of pulling SU dollars out of those fossil fuel investments, the endowment was valued at about US$ 230 million.

To give some context to the scope of SU’s divestment, in 2017, about US$ 13.6 million, or 6.7 percent of the endowment, consisted of companies with fossil fuel reserves. Now, zero percent of the marketable portion of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels.

Aoife Kennedy, ‘25, president of Sustainable Student Action (SSA), the SU student group that started the push for divestment in 2012, says she is moved by what students who came before her accomplished.

“Divestment at SU was a difficult and lengthy process,” Kennedy says. “But the many inspiring students who were a part of this campaign serve as a powerful reminder of our collective influence and strength.”

“It’s all too tempting to become pessimistic about climate change,” says Seattle University President Eduardo Peñalver. “But, as a Jesuit university, we are called to accompany our students toward a hope-filled future and to take actions to help bring that future into being. Even while we acknowledge the reality of the climate challenges we are confronting, I am very proud of Seattle University’s divestment effort, a concrete and thoughtful accomplishment that serves as an example for others.”

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