Seattle University will become the first university in Washington state to divest its endowment of fossil fuels over the next five years.
The action means that by 2023, Seattle University will no longer invest any of its $230 million endowment in the funds and securities of fossil-fuel companies. The university estimates that 6.7 percent, or $13.6 million, of its endowment has "exposure to securities of fossil-fuel companies, as defined by ownership of fossil-fuel reserves."
The university will work to achieve a 50 percent reduction by Dec. 31, 2020, and expects to be fully divested by June 30, 2023.
"The moral imperative for action is clear," said Seattle U President Stephen Sundborg in an announcement. "By taking this step we are acting boldly and making an important statement … We join with others also at the forefront of the growing divestment movement and hope our action encourages more to do the same." Seattle U also becomes the first among the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities to divest.
"It's definitely a victory for us," said student Connor Crinion, a member of Sustainable Student Action, the student group that has pushed for divestment since 2012. "We're hoping this might be a milestone" that will encourage divestment at other schools in Washington, as well as at other Jesuit universities, he said.
But he and other members of the group say the decision doesn't go as far as they would have liked because it doesn't cover companies involved in fossil fuel extraction that do not own fossil fuel reserves. For example, a company involved in construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline doesn't make the list, said student Molly Mattingly. The Board of Trustees took the vote last week, before the start of the academic year, so no students were on campus when the decision was announced.
In his statement, Sundborg praised student leaders for bringing the issue to the forefront, and said that as a Jesuit and Catholic university, Seattle U has "a special obligation to address the unfolding climate change crisis." He quoted Pope Frances, who asked, "What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up."
Many other student environmental groups across the state have asked their universities to divest. The idea hearkens back to the 1980s, when widespread divestment by universities in South African companies was one of the forces that helped end that country's system of apartheid.
In a statement, petroleum industry representatives said divesting would cost the college money and would have no impact on climate change. "Of course, it’s the students that will be picking up the tab,” said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for Divestment Facts, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
In 2015, the University of Washington divested its endowment of coal, which amounted to less than 1 percent of all investments. At the time, the UW's Board of Regents approved a resolution saying they did not recommend ending investments in other fossil fuels like oil and gas because that would have a larger negative impact on the school's endowment.
Earlier this year, Sierra, the Sierra Club's national magazine, ranked Seattle U the 8th-greenest school in the nation for its commitment to environmental issues.
A list of all institutions worldwide that have committed to some form of divestment is at gofossilfree.org.