Fossil Free WashU rally encourages student action: ‘Divest, divest, put fossil fuels to the rest!’

| Junior News Editor

Illustration by Head of Illustration Tuesday Hadden.



Green Action, a student group focused on environmental justice and advocacy, held a rally calling on Washington University to divest from fossil fuels as a part of its Fossil Free WashU campaign, Oct. 27.

Students congregated in the DUC courtyard with a series of speeches before walking over to Chancellor Andrew Martin’s office window overlooking Brookings Quad. Passing the megaphone in chants and holding signs calling for divestment, the protestors grew in number to about 30 or 40 students.

Junior Aidan Lewis believes the rally was a good “first step” to raising awareness on campus, and was one of several students that plan to get more involved with Fossil Free WashU’s petitions and protests in the future.

“Events like this get people energized about activism in the movement, and it lets the University know that we haven’t forgotten about it and we haven’t gone away,” sophomore George Kingsland said, who has been involved with Green Action since freshman fall.

The Washington University Investment Management Company (WUIMC), responsible for the University’s investment in endowment funds, released the 2020-2021 Endowment Annual Report that outlined general impact areas in which the WUIMC invested in June 2021. Of the approximately 31% of the endowment invested into positive impact areas, $155 million, is invested under clean tech and renewable energy with the goal of enhancing renewable energy, water management, and zero-emission transportation.

“WUIMC follows the highest business ethics standards and expects the same from its external investment managers and the management of companies in which they invest,” the report states. “WUIMC does not seek to profit from the violation of basic human rights and dignity, abusive or oppressive labor practices, gross pollution or environmental destruction, or any form of bribery and corruption.”

Jenny Voelker, Chief Operating Officer of the WUIMC, wrote in an email to StudLife that the 2021-2022 report in early December will contain similar findings to the 2020-2021 report, as “roughly one-third of the total managed endowment pool is invested in positive impact areas, and it continues to have virtually no investments in coal.”

“The endowment is established to support the University’s mission in perpetuity and across multiple generations to come, and therefore maintains a very long-term investment horizon,” Voelker wrote. “WUIMC engages with external partners and companies who are also aligned with the university’s long term objectives, and WUIMC believes all partners and companies must pursue sustainable practices that allow them to also serve their constituencies and communities for generations to come.”

In his last official statement on fossil fuel divestment in a blog post from March 2020, Martin confirmed that Washington University’s endowment has “limited exposure to non-renewable resources (which includes energy, materials, and mining) and high carbon emission sub-sectors (which includes auto/air transportation and certain industrials/capital goods.”

Martin further wrote that the WUIMC views “divestment from certain industries or companies as an ineffective way to promote environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives,” and that the University “cannot risk jeopardizing the financial support of the university’s mission” by restricting investments.

In an email to StudLife last week, Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications, Julie Flory held that there was nothing new to add to Martin’s previous comments.

“We don’t provide a full [endowment] breakdown, beyond what’s in the report,” Flory wrote.

Green Action Co-President Bela Stampes-Blackburn described divestment from fossil fuels as the “bare minimum,” and stated in an email that funding should be redirected into sustainable investments that “incorporate ESG criteria and encourage socially responsible investing.”

“The idea that this investment supports the University’s mission is frightening given the detrimental impacts climate change will have on everyone, particularly the most vulnerable,” Stamps-Blackburn said.

In the last few years, peer institutions such as the University of Michigan, Harvard, Princeton, Boston University, and the California State University system committed to the divestment from fossil fuels.

“Our endowment is definitely large enough that [divestment] would not be jeopardizing our institution,” Stampes-Blackburn said. “There have been several other institutions that have been able to divest that have represented the interests of their students. So we know that it’s feasible and they are just choosing not to.”

Attending students voiced that the University’s investment in fossil fuels is directly contradictory to the University’s mission statement and the recent “Here and Next” strategic vision. Sophomore Green Action executive member Alex Herzig used one of the University’s goals “to contribute positively to our home community of St. Louis” as an example of this contradiction.

“Already we see the inherent contradiction, because how can we be claiming to be aiding the St. Louis community and the community of the world as a whole when we are actively investing into fossil fuels which are destroying it?” he said.

Green Action’s top priority is obtaining transparency from the administration on how endowment funds are being spent on fossil fuels and on the University’s climate practices.

“They won’t actually tell us how much money they’re investing into fossil fuel industries, they’ll only allude to it,” Herzig said. “We deserve to know where the money that we’re giving the school is going, and they deserve to be held accountable for their financial practices.”

Green Action member Senior Jared Moxley spoke of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, the University’s center of research for advancing coal and carbon sequestration technologies.

“The continued extraction of fossil fuels is incompatible with the long-term survival of our planet and can never be made clean,” he said.

Attending Junior Isabel Huesa felt “energized” by the rally and hopes that voices for fossil fuel divestment will work to further incorporate a diverse set of student voices.

“I think a lot of the student support right now is very homogenous, and especially in leadership I think it’s important to have the perspectives of people who are especially disenfranchised and affected by fossil fuels,” Huesa said. “I’d like to see more use of indigenous cultural knowledge and using that allyship. Not that this is a co-option of the movement, but to avoid co-opting something that people of color have been fighting for centuries.”

One attending student who chose to remain anonymous described what he feels is a “disconnection” between the student body and administration on the fossil fuel divestment movement.

“The students should have the space to have that conversation with actual administration,” he said. “This feels very one-sided at this point.”

Alongside more open communication of fund management on the University’s behalf, Green Action encourages inclusivity within its group and hopes to inspire more students to get involved.

“Our objective is essentially to keep getting more voices heard, to keep ramping up the degree to which we’re showing that we care about this, and eventually WashU won’t really have a choice but to recognize that their student body really cares about divestment as an issue,” Herzig said.

Green Action holds General Body Meetings at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays in the Harvey Media Center, open to anyone who wishes to get involved.

“It’s very easy to feel hopeless and like nothing you do makes a difference, but we need to reevaluate our impact,” Stampes-Blackburn said. “We can hold our university accountable.”


Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.