The Western Washington University Foundation announced in September it would not end investments in fossil fuel companies, but some students at the university are not willing to accept that stance.
Responding to a request made by Western’s student government in May to freeze investments in fossil fuel companies and commit to divestment within five years, the foundation announced Sept. 16 that it would not change its investment policy. Leaders did, however, create a climate-friendly investment fund in their portfolio as an option for donors.
Students for Renewable Energy, a student government club at the university, released a statement Oct. 6 denouncing the foundation’s answer to their May request.
“To invest funds on behalf of an institution into a reckless and unsustainable business strategy is not consistent with any fiduciary duty,” read the statement from the Students for Renewable Energy.
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The foundation contends that divestment is not part of its mission, which includes advancing scholarships and funding for academic programs. The foundation is comprised of alumni, donors and community members and generates financial support for the college. It is independent from the university, according to the foundation’s website.
Steve Swan, Western’s vice president for university relations and community development, said divesting would negatively impact students.
“It would have a very direct impact on the financial resources that are made available for the students at Western,” Swan said.
Swan, who says he is familiar with the foundation’s decision-making process, said it is up to the university, not the foundation, to figure out ways to address the critically important issues regarding climate change. He said the foundation leaders arrived at their decision after looking at the issue from multiple perspectives, including appointing a divestment study committee and listening to students.
Western President Bruce Shepard wrote in a blog post that he supported the foundation’s decision.
“Everybody understands that divestment by our foundation would have no material effect on climate change. While we do care about symbolic statements, I believe climate change is far too important to get snarled up in gestures. Our planet is hanging in the balance,” he wrote in the post.
The Students for Renewable Energy disagree that the gesture would have little impact.
“A lot of movements gain power through symbolic gestures,” said Rona Bryan, a member of the student club. “We really think Western deserves a place at the head of that movement.”
In May 2013, students were asked to vote on whether they supported the foundation divesting from fossil fuel companies. Of the 2,000 students who voted, 86 percent were in favor of divesting.
Shepard said in his blog post that the foundation’s decision puts the responsibility on the students, faculty and administration to address the challenges of climate change. He urged the University Sustainability Advisory Committee to review the climate action plan—a collaboration of university members working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and report to campus on their progress and then recommend modifications.
“I appreciate all the hard work our students and our foundation put into study, learning, analyzing, and discussing. I also believe the emphasis upon divestment is fundamentally misplaced.”
Swan said the foundation has made a final decision on the issue, but the students plan on following up regardless, seeing the creation of a climate-friendly fund as proof that divestment is possible.
“The choice is between now and later,” Bryan said.