By Laura Knudson
Students campaigning for campus divestment from fossil fuels have been met with disappointment from lack of action taken by the Western’s Development Foundation.
Members of the environmental club spent the last week collecting over 350 signatures from students, faculty and alumni. They hope to reach at least 600 signatures, demonstrating student support to the foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that financially assists the college.
“Last year, Oregon State University attempted divestment and was rejected, which spurred us to take up our own campaign at Western,” said Beth Bello, creator and president of the environmental club. “Divesting from fossil fuels is so important because, as many of us are aware, global warming is now a scientific fact.”
The issue first gained campus attention at the Oct. 28 Faculty Senate meeting with a presentation by Dr. Mark Van Steeter, associate professor of geography.
Divesting entails the foundation getting rid of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are part of the fossil fuel industry, according to a written proposal distributed at the meeting.
It’s “when you take the money you have invested into fossil fuel companies, and invest into a more ethical company like renewable energy,” Bello said. This does nothing to stop the oil companies, she added, but it makes a symbolic statement.
The proposal also stated, “Unlike some large universities that receive significant funding for research from the fossil fuel industry, we do not.”
The goal of divestment, Van Steeter said, is to send a social message. Industries should use its resources and innovation to transition toward a low carbon economy, he explained.
An added benefit includes landing Western as the 14th school in the nation to divest.
“I see this as a real possibility to get positive PR and put us on the map,” Van Steeter said. “It really makes sense for Western.”
The presentation sparked debate with university President Mark Weiss weighing in.
“In my view, it’s pretty hypocritical to take this position,” he said. “How many of us don’t live locally? How many of us get on an airplane to go to conferences every year,” he said.
Vansteeter responded saying, “There’s always a reason to be found not to act.”
In a guest column authored by Weiss appearing in the Nov. 13 issue of the Statesman Journal, he said, “From the beginning of the industrial age, American’s simply neglected to consider the consequences of burning fossil fuels.” Titled “The world crisis we’d rather ignore” Weiss’ column also states that divesting in oil and gas companies may provide satisfaction that something is being done, but “it is not apparent this action would contribute to solving the problem.”
As the discussion heated up during the senate meeting, other senate members chimed in.
“Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean it’s hypocritical to do something,” said Michael Baltzley, faculty senate member and associate professor of biology.
Also in attendance at the meeting was Tommy Love, executive director in the Office of University Advancement and WOU Foundation. Love said divesting is a complicated issue and the foundation wants to make sure they do what’s right.
One environmental club member has made it his mission to raise awareness by visiting more than 15 campus club meetings.
“By demonstrating large scale student support for divestment, the foundation will listen to student voices,” said Karl Amspacher, senior geography major.
Amspacher was disappointed when the foundation declined his request to speak about divestment at their upcoming December meeting.
In a Nov. 10 email to the foundation, Amspacher asked for five minutes to present on divestment.
His request was met with a reply from Love which said he had already spoken with Van Steeter about divestment and “the specific topic of divestment is not planned for the agenda at the December board meeting.”
“It’s a brush off,” Amspacher said.
An earlier request submitted via email by alumnus Zander Albertson’s was also denied by the foundation.
“It’s difficult to believe that the foundation takes divestment seriously given that it has been given no further consideration,” Albertson said. He was also disappointed in the foundation’s unwillingness to put divestment on the agenda.
“I wish they would have just opened the discussion,” he added.
Prior to the start of school, Van Steeter requested five minutes to present the issue to the foundation. He met with the finance and planned giving sub-committee.
“We wouldn’t lose anything by divesting,” Van Steeter said in an interview. “We could do the right thing and not pay a price for it.”
Apart from the meeting and Van Steeter’s presentation to the faculty senate, no other formal forum has taken place between the foundation and the environmental club.
When asked in a Wednesday interview if he felt this was fair and sufficient, Love said, “I think it is for where we are at this point.”
The other side has had time to think and plan regarding divestment, he said. “The topic and issue recently came to us. We’re trying to get our arms around this.”
And there is much to consider when discussing investments, Love said.
For starters, moving investments from fossil fuels into green energy does not necessarily guarantee things will stay the same in terms of revenue.
“There’s always risk in that,” said Love. “That’s the stock market in general.”
For 2014, the foundation’s total revenue was $4,302,690 according to the foundation’s audit report, available on Western’s foundation webpage. Realized gains from investments, the amount received from the sale of investment holdings, was $673,045. Unrealized gains or the current value of those investments was a reported $564,593.
The foundation does not disclose what they invest in.
Albertson said this is concerning because it leaves one to conclude the foundation portfolio contains a fairly significant amount of carbon-based investments.
“As a private foundation, we have not released those holdings,” Love said.
But, aiding in what Love calls the “complex layers” of divestments, are mutual funds.
“There are components we have that are related to fossil fuels because we have mutual funds,” he said.
Mutual funds refer to professionally managed investment programs funded by shareholders that trades in diversified holdings.
Because these investments are managed by a company, they change all the time, even daily, Love said.
Furthermore, “if we divest, someone else is going to buy those stocks,” he said. “Divestment in and of itself is not going to make a true impact.”
The foundation is interested in looking at the bigger picture of climate change, he added.
“I don’t want students to think that the foundation and myself do not recognize the issue of climate change,” Love said. Divesting is “one way to do it, but let’s have a campus-wide conversation to address global climate change.”
For example, “Not commuting in [to campus] I think would have a bigger impact,” he said.
Ultimately, Love said aside from the “moral obligation” concerning climate change, “we also have an obligation as a foundation.”
“We don’t want to make any rush judgments,” he said. “Especially when we have to think about other things outside of fossil fuels.”
“I make no commitment [to either side],” he said. “I do commit to continuing dialogue.”
Love encourages interested parties to contact the foundation with comments.
The social science division will vote on fossil fuel divestment resolution of support Dec. 2, Van Steeter said. If approved, “it will be a template for other divisions to follow,” he said.
The environmental club will be protesting outside the building during the Dec. 6 meeting, Bello said.
“This is a movement to improve our school,” Amspacher said. “We’re doing this to make Western a better place.”
How to get involved:
WHAT: Environmental Club
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. every Wednesday in HSS room 230
MORE INFO: Contact club president Beth Bello at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 503-798-7763
Direct questions or comments for the foundation to Tommy Love, executive director in the Office of University Advancement and WOU Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com or 503-838-8134.