WWU students, faculty renew request for divestment

Students, faculty and staff have once again urged the Western Washington University Foundation to divest from fossil fuel companies.

More than 350 Western employees signed a letter in support of a student-led divestment campaign that is now in its third year.

Eighty-six percent of 2,000 students voted in support of the foundation divesting from fossil fuel companies during the 2012-13 school year. In May 2014, the student government requested that the foundation freeze investments in fossil fuel companies and commit to divestment within five years, but the foundation decided against that idea in September.

As part of its decision last fall, the foundation committed to creating a climate-friendly investment fund in its portfolio as an option for donors.

The student government was not satisfied with the decision and continued to advocate for divestment throughout the 2014-15 school year. It renewed the request for the foundation to divest last month, and one day later faculty and staff delivered a letter with 368 signatures to the offices of President Bruce Shepard and the WWU Foundation on May 28.

Shepard was away from his office at the time. His assistant took the letter, thanked the employees and ensured it would be put in the president’s hands. Faculty and staff received a similar response from the foundation’s office, said WWU instructor Jill MacIntyre Witt.

Witt, who also advises the Students for Renewable Energy club, said the request for the foundation to divest within five years is “a completely reasonable ask.”

“I think it’s really important for Western, especially because they pride themselves in their sustainability practices,” Witt said. “It seems wise for them to align their investments with their values.”

Last week, more than 100 students staged a 24-hour sit in outside the president and foundation offices on campus.

“Our voices have not been heard by the administration, perhaps because they fail to prioritize the physical effects of fossil fuel investments,” said WWU senior Brandon McNamara. “The sit-in has created a physical presence to show the administration that we are serious about divestment.”

Witt said that the foundation staff participated in a study group committee along with Western students, staff and administrators in 2013 that reported less than 5 percent of the foundation endowment fund was invested in fossil fuels.

The foundation board of directors works with a not-for-profit investment consulting firm called Commonfund. The foundation has no direct stock investments in fossil fuel companies, and instead “invests in a number privately managed, commingled funds, which invest in thousands of companies, including some within the fossil fuel industry,” said WWU spokesman Paul Cocke.

The foundation has not indicated to students or faculty if it will reconsider its decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies. Nobody from the foundation was available for comment on this article.

Cocke, when asked in an email if the foundation would reconsider, said, “The Foundation Board of Directors has made a final determination and the university fully supports their decision.”

James Loucky, an anthropology professor who has been with the university for 26 years, remains optimistic the foundation will make the decision to divest. He said people should change their way of life and use less fossil fuels, but institutions as a whole must do something as well.

“I’m confident that our leadership will do the right thing,” Loucky said. “I’m just disappointed that they’re not leading on this.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Western Washington University Foundation told faculty that less than 5 percent of their endowment was invested in fossil fuel companies.

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.