Campus movement to divert funds from fossil fuels gains steam
By Nick Ciccetti
Surrounded by a city cloaked in ecological friendliness, a group of students at SF State are doing their best to force the University to align their investments with the principles of the community.
Calling themselves San Francisco State Fossil Free, a group of twenty or so students are determined to pass a referendum forcing the University to pull its money from any fossil fuel related investments.
The group has established two main goals this semester: to pass a resolution in accordance with Associated Student Inc., the group that oversees student affairs, and receive a response from University administration.
The resolution calls for the University to halt any pending or future investments in fossil fuels, and to divest from any existing funds within the next five years. Despite their differing backgrounds, these students are united by a common cause; that the University should not invest its endowment funds in socially and environmentally irresponsible companies, particularly those that make their profits from fossil fuels.
Student efforts parallel a citywide movement spearheaded by Supervisor John Avalos, who recently proposed legislation for the city of San Francisco to divest from its fossil fuel-related endowments.
“We should put our investment power into companies that have a positive effect on our society,” Avalos said.
SF State Fossil Free shares this point of view.
“A university, especially one of public standing, should be a place for new innovative ideas which will empower all for generations to come,” environmental studies major Michael Zambrano said. “We are now moving into a state where fossil fuels are no longer practical.”
SF State students are calling for divestment from companies that deal in fossil fuels, calling them unsustainable and unethical investments.
An endowment is a school’s savings account that accumulates through returns from investments and alumni donations. Investments are managed by both the California State University Board of Trustees and the University.
SF State’s endowment sits at around $50 million in bonds, a result of the returns from various investments.
“What’s unclear is how our money is allocated within each of these funds,” environmental sustainability and social justice major, Brittany Giunchigliani, said. “Our school does not invest directly in a company through stocks, but rather our endowments are invested in funds that distribute the money in various bonds, thus creating a complex paper trail of our actual investments.”
The group has verified that at least one of the funds in the SF State Foundation possesses a fossil fuel-related investment.
Collectively, colleges and universities nationwide possess over $400 billion in their endowments, and divesting would not only shake up financial markets but reveal, as the movement says, the irresponsibility of these companies.
More than 256 colleges and universities have divestment campaigns, three of which have already successfully divested from their fossil fuel related funds: Unity College in Maine, Sterling College in Vermont, and Hampshire College in Massachusetts. More locally, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego have passed student government resolutions and are now working towards referendums.
The views of SF State Fossil Free come into conflict with the mission of the two groups that invest university money — the CSU system and the San Francisco State University Corporation — since their main objective is to make the most money from its investments.
And fossil fuels undoubtedly bring in the bucks. A study by Climate Progress shows that the top five oil companies made $137 billion in profit, or $375 million per day, just last year
The University Corporation, also known as SF State Alternative Investments, is guided by two main principles: that “the corporation shall exercise ethical and social stewardship in its investment policy,” and that “the corporation shall exercise responsible financial stewardship over its financial resources.”
Equally significant is the SF State Foundation policy, which is “to provide each campus president the greatest flexibility to maximize investment opportunities.”
While presidents must act accordingly as agents of the trustees and avoid any unnecessary risk, they have discretionary power to direct funding where they deem appropriate.
While the CSU Board of Trustees’ concern is about losing money, the campaign’s request — a verbal commitment to halt any new investments in fossil fuels followed by a gradual process of reinvestment over a five year plan — is “low risk considering scholarships and tuition are not affected by the endowment,” 350.org west coast organizer, Deirdre Smith, said. “In fact, if anything, this move would boost the school’s reputation.”
The first goal of SF State Fossil Free is to pass its own student resolution, supported by ASI. Despite the complexity of the funds and the particularities of working within the public school system, the movement is progressing fast.
“The dependency on fossil fuels has shifted from a commodity to a necessity in record time,” Zambrano said at the most recent group meeting. “Although this may contribute to maximum monetary gain in the short term, it fails to acknowledge the very future of humans as a species. Soon oil will run out, especially cheap oil.”
As of now, the group awaits a post-spring break meeting with ASI where they’ll find out if the student government will pass a resolution. In the meantime, SF State Fossil Free plans to continue making its presence known around campus, especially considering the multitude of environmental events on campus during the month of April.
“If we invest money into the fossil fuel industry, we are investing in the mass extinction of organisms worldwide without bias to humans,” Zambrano said. “Profit should be about the sustainability of relative equality and not about another comma and a zero.”