With a bright green banner depicting a black pollution cloud behind them, Students for Environmental Action (SEA) member Sara McMahon ‘21 and co-president Caillie Roach ‘21 were reaching out to students on Hunsaker in late February to sign a petition. Their goal has been to garner the support of half the undergraduate student body to propose that the University of Redlands Board of Trustees divest in companies involved in the fossil fuel industry, and “reinvest” in sustainable alternatives.
“[The University] has an endowment of about $167 million,” McMahon said. “We don’t know how much exactly but about two to five million of that is being invested in companies that support fossil fuels. That’s actually our money, it’s tuition money that they use for that. We’re trying to have this petition signed by at least half the student body so we can encourage [the Board of Trustees] to invest instead in companies that are more sustainable and more environmentally friendly.”
The quoted number “two to five million” is based on a statistic in a 2013 study that found universities in the US allocate two to three percent of endowment on average to “investable fossil fuel public equities.”
Roach explained that “[The Board of Trustees] have not directly told us that they avoid investing in fossil fuel companies.” Thus, part of the purpose of SEA’s petition is to encourage more transparency between University administration and the student body.
“We want to know which companies our money is going towards,” Roach said.
After two weeks of circulation, SEA’s petition had obtained 604 total signatures from students, faculty, and alumni just before spring break, and has a goal of 1,350 signatures to reach half of all undergrads. Members of SEA continue to circulate the petition in their push to reach their goal. If they are successful, co-presidents Roach and Anyela Guzman will bring the petition to the University’s Board of Trustees and directly propose divestment and sustainable reinvestment options.
According to the University media relations department, the University is currently reviewing the issue. More details are expected in the coming weeks.
However, SEA may face an uphill battle. Last year, previous co-president of SEA and Johnston alum Theo Whitcomb made nearly identical demands of the administration in a letter to the editor of the Redlands Bulldog. Whitcomb wrote that “divestment was shot down on site” by the Board of Trustees when proposed by him two years prior to his letter, and so a “Climate Action” protest was organized by him and former SEA co-president Elise Eifler to make their demands heard in the spring of 2019.
Petitions like the one currently circulating and protests like the one last spring are part of a long-standing movement at the U of R, which has varied in momentum and organization for several years. In the wake of a student protest to divest in fossil fuels in 2015, the University’s chief communications officer Wendy Shattuck released a statement to the Redlands Daily Facts that made their position clear: “restricting investment choices for reasons unrelated to our investment goals would not be prudent.” The board suggested that “alternatives to divestment” like “positive investment” in companies with “a core mission of sustainability or alternative energy development, may be well worth exploring.”
Although students lead the movement to divest on campus, faculty members have voiced their support in more ways than signing SEA’s petition. The University of Redlands Sustainability Council, founded in 2013 at President Kuncl’s initiative and comprised of both students and faculty, advised in their 2016-2017 Report to the Provost that the U of R shift to an investment strategy that “ultimately phases out investment in coal, oil, and gas companies” and replaces them with “sustainable investment opportunities.” Not only did the council argue for the environmental benefits, but it also made the case that the declining costs and improving efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines would make them a more financially viable option than dirty energy sources in the long term. The council proposed that investment in these more sustainable energy sources would “hedge against future instability” in the fossil fuel industry brought on by these increasingly competitive alternatives.
SEA’s proposal to divest in fossil fuels and invest in sustainable energy alternatives is not unprecedented, either. One year before the 2015 student protest at the U of R, Pitzer College committed to divest endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry after students approached their institution’s investment committee. SEA cites Pitzer as evidence for the feasibility of their proposal. McMahon in particular said that examples like Pitzer have made her “actually feel like we might be successful.”
Under Roach and Guzman’s leadership, SEA wants to be clear that their approach to divestment is “not a campaign against the administration.” They’ve avoided phrasing like the “demands” made by Whitcomb, and emphasized that divestment does not simply mean pulling investment from the fossil fuel industry; it also means beneficial reinvestment in sustainable alternatives along the lines of the Sustainability Council’s advice in their report.
“We’re really trying to help [the administration],” Roach said. “When we talk to them we’re going to be proposing other investment portfolios that the university can invest in that Pitzer has done. They could either do something very similar, or join in those mutual funds.”
SEA’s petition can be signed electronically here.
Photograph by Jono Ruhlman.