Georgetown University’s board of directors voted to divest the school’s endowment from coal companies Thursday, a move that fell short of students’ hopes for divestment from all fossil fuel companies.
Students staged a sit-in on campus in the lead-up to the board meeting to press the school’s board of directors to vote in favor of divesting from fossil fuels. They were disappointed by the board’s final decision — coal makes up only a small portion of the board’s total investments, they said, and as a Jesuit institution, Georgetown has a moral obligation to divest from fossil fuels.
“If the Board had made their decision for principally moral reasons, then they would have supported full divestment from both direct and commingled funds from coal, oil, and gas companies,” student divestment group Georgetown University Fossil Free (GUFF), which organized the sit-in, wrote in response to the vote. “If Georgetown understands coal investments to be immoral, the only reason not to divest from commingled funds which include coal would be because doing so is more logistically difficult than divesting from direct investments, a meager excuse considering the urgency of the climate crisis.”
If Georgetown had divested completely from fossil fuels, it would have been the largest university so far to do so, according to GUFF.
Georgetown, for its part, invoked its religious standing as part of the reason for voting to divest its $1.5 billion endowment divestment from coal.
“As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we are called to powerfully engage the world, human culture, and the environment — bringing to bear the intellectual and spiritual resources that our community is built upon,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said in a statement. The university said in the statement that it would “continue on a regular basis to evaluate in-depth issues related to socially responsible investments and management of the endowment.”
The moral implications of fossil fuel divestment was a major part of GUFF’s message during the sit-in Thursday. Students pointed to the fact that poor countries and communities often bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts, and that holding fossil fuel investments doesn’t fit with the school’s Catholic values, especially with Pope Francis’ increasing focus on climate change and environmental issues.
Aaron Silberman, a rising sophomore at Georgetown and a member of GUFF, said that the group would keep pushing the board of directors to fully divest from fossil fuels.
“The board of directors were elected based on the notion that they would represent and be guardians of Georgetown’s present, past, and future,” Siberman said. Holding investments in fossil fuels — an industry that jeopardizes the future of the planet by contributing to climate change — doesn’t fit with that expectation, he said.
Silberman said he knew that the divestment movement wouldn’t solve climate change on it’s own, but that it was a key part of the broader fight against climate change. The movement, which started as a campaign of climate action group 350.org, has spread to campuses and foundations around the world. So far, more than 30 universities have committed to some form of divestment — whether it be from all fossil fuels or just coal companies. Stanford University, in a move similar to Georgetown’s, committed to divesting from coal last month.
Caroline James, a rising senior and member of GUFF who attended the sit-in, agreed with Silberman that the divestment movement isn’t the end-all be-all for climate change action.
“It’s more about a paradigm shift than in causing [oil and gas company] Shell financial hardship,” she said. That paradigm shift involves universities realizing that working to reduce their carbon emissions isn’t enough — they also need to stop investing in companies that are threatening the planet’s future.
Despite the disappointment of the university’s focus on coal rather than all fossil fuels, Silberman was still thankful that the university took up the issue Thursday. He said he was glad that the university at least voted to divest from coal, instead of rejecting all fossil fuel divestment, as some other universities have done.
“We can look at this as being a small step in the right direction,” he said.