Seattle University Moves Toward Fossil Fuel Divestment Despite President’s Lukewarm Response

by Nathalie Graham 

Over 462 universities have committed to or acted on fossil fuel divestment. With climate change and environmental injustices rearing their heads more and more each year, Seattle University’s Sustainable Student Action (SSA) is determined to get their school to divest.

The SSA hosted a presidential address with SU president and Father Steve Sundborg on March first to hear his opinions on the matter. It appeared, however, that Sundborg only agreed to speak if the crowd responded well to him, which it didn’t.

This isn’t new for SU, however. In Nov. 2012, the SSA formed, and they have since been pushing SU administration to withdraw over $12 million that SU has invested in fossil fuel companies.

With several rallies and petitions since 2012, the SSA has received wide student and faculty support for their cause. Despite a direct refusal from the administration in 2014, the SSA continued their pressure. Last school year, they successfully got SU to create a socially responsible investment task force.

Currently, the administration says divestment may be possible within the decade. For many SSA students, this isn’t enough.

Kelly Besmer, an SSA member and SU senior, feels like the administration isn’t acting.

“With Donald Trump being president we’re feeling the urge to do something sooner rather than later,” Besmer said. “The administration keeps pushing it off, we keep hearing that they’re looking into it and that change will be made 10 years down the road, but we need change now.”

Besmer was excited about the address because the university’s position would be clarified. SU is committed to moving forward with divesting from fossil fuel but the university’s president, Father Steve Sundborg, is not completely sold on the idea.

The SSA believes in their power as student activists to make change in the place they’re engaged with every day. They can fight climate change and they see that fight being carried out through divestment.

The first speaker of the evening was Matt Remle, a member of the Standing Rock Lakota tribe and organizer with the campaign to divest Seattle and other cities from the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Remle provided stories from the frontlines of Standing Rock, his tribe’s experience fighting DAPL, and how he spearheaded City of Seattle’s successful divestment from its funds in Wells Fargo.

“After finding out that Wells Fargo was backing the pipeline as the biggest investor,” Remle said, “I noticed the city does banking with them and crafted an ordinance to divest the city’s $3 billion employee payroll account.”

Sure enough, the Seattle City Council voted to divest from Wells Fargo on Feb. 7.

Part of the victory was the ripple effect this had nationally. Other cities are already taking the steps to move in a similar direction, Remle said.

The SSA hopes SU can be a part of this ripple, starting a movement of its own for other Jesuit universities.

Father Sundborg understands the goals and motivations of the SSA but is not fully convinced that divestment is effective. He believes that a university divesting from its own secondhand divestments that partake in the fossil industry won’t be enough to counteract climate change.

“I’m not yet fully persuaded that it’s a fully effective kind of measure,” Sundborg said.

Despite his skepticism, the school has been taking steps toward divestment over the last two years. SU has implemented a permanent working group on socially responsible investment that offers a new policy, forbidding SU from investing directly in fossil fuels now and forever, and requiring SU values of those who use SU’s money.

SU mostly has indirect investments in commingled funds, in companies that have some stake in the fossil fuel industry but not a direct role. SU has one direct investment from the Redhawk Fund, a $250,000 endowment for the Albers School of Business students to invest. Six percent of the fund was invested in the energy sector, according to Sundborg, and fossil fuel companies are included in this. Their president says the university will require the Redhawk fund to divest from fossil fuels.

“We have established [a] 10-year aspirational objective,” Bob Blais, chairperson of the university’s investment committee said. “But, I’m very confident that we’re going to move to divestiture a fair amount quicker than that.”

While this is progress, SSA wants faster action.

“Divestment in our movement, and the way SSA has framed it is a movement of environmental justice rather than simply sustainability,” SSA member Rachel Levelle said. “Lowering our personal emissions is only affecting the carbon emissions and not the people being affected by extraction and transport because we are all affected by emissions but we are not all affected by the extraction which is usually around communities of color and indigenous land.”

This echoed a sentiment of modern day colonialism that Remle posed earlier: it has always been about settlers removing indigenous populations for the resources on indigenous land.

“The Lakota people bare 100 percent of the risk posed by this pipeline but zero percent of the economic benefit,” Remle said.

According to Sundborg, the Jesuits have always been opposed to climate change because of its impact on vulnerable people. Seattle University is a Jesuit university.

The question still remained for SSA members: what will it take for Sundborg to be convinced of the importance of climate change?

“Does the divestment of this small university — with a very modest endowment relative to other universities — does that make a difference in terms of divestment?” Sundborg rebuffed.

The crowd’s response was uproarious. People’s affirmative shouts of “yes” reverberated against the glass walls of the auditorium.

Sundborg was visibly ruffled by this response.

“There was an agreement in my coming here, in terms of how this would be carried out, and that’s not what we agreed, isn’t that right?” He sternly asked the SSA moderators.

The president was unwilling to face criticism, and his decision to address this issue was contingent upon positive responses, so the facade of an open discussion was shattered.

His support for divestment was clearly surface level and his openness to be persuaded about the issue was nonexistent.

“The question that needs to be asked is what does it mean for us as a Jesuit university” Levelle posited, noting SU’s community involvement and its influence. “In the end, the $12 million isn’t what this is about. It’s about being a part of this larger movement so that fossil fuel companies can’t move forward.”

nat-gNathalie Graham is an Emerald intern and junior at the University of Washington studying journalism and English. A Los Angeles native, Nathalie is a reporter at The Daily at the University of Washington. Her work has also appeared in the Seattle Globalist and the International Examiner.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to JavaColleen/via Flickr