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College students in fossil fuel fight



Colleges in the Rochester area and across the country have gone to great lengths to build up their sustainability cred.

The efforts vary from campus to campus, but include changes that greatly reduce waste from dining halls and retrofits that slash energy use in campus buildings. And some campuses have signed on to climate change commitments, pledging to reduce their carbon footprints.

Yet many schools, from Ivy League universities to small liberal arts colleges, still have money invested in oil, coal, and natural gas companies. The contradiction is not lost on students, some of whom are now trying to convince campus administrators to change their approach to investing. Students at University of Rochester and SUNY Geneseo are among those pushing their schools to stop investing in fossil fuel companies.

The students leading the UR and Geneseo campaigns say that by pulling their investments, their schools would be taking a stand against the fossil fuel industry and its role in one of the biggest environmental and social issues of their generation: climate change.

"If you are coming out and publicly saying, 'We value sustainability, we value the environment, we believe that climate change is real [and] we need to do things about it if we don't want it to become literally a global disaster,' then it's time to not just say those things and actually do things about them," says Allison Hoppe, a SUNY Geneseo senior who helped start a divestment campaign at her school.

Nationwide, colleges and universities invest a total of approximately $400 billion, says Dan Apfel, executive director of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, which is working with student-led divestment campaigns across the country. Most schools don't have large fossil fuel holdings and eliminating those investments wouldn't hurt the performance of their endowments, says Apfel, a UR alumnus. But how schools invest their money can make a statement and influence other investors, he says.

Divestment — by government as well as by universities and colleges — is not a new tactic: it played a role in ending apartheid in South Africa.

In September 1985, trustees for the statewide SUNY system voted to sell off $11.5 million worth of stock in companies doing business in South Africa, according to an Associated Press report from the time. SUNY was and is the largest university system in the country.

The University of Rochester followed in 1987, says a New York Times article. UR also has a policy prohibiting direct investment in companies that support the Sudanese government.

"This isn't something that's brand new, it's been done before," says University of Rochester student Alykhan Alani, who supports fossil fuel divestment. "The question is, do we have the political will to institute it here and now?"

At the University of Rochester, the student-led push for fossil fuel divestment is part of a larger campaign targeting how the school invests its $1.7 billion endowment.

For several years, Students for a Democratic Society has pushed for the university to establish a socially responsible investment committee. The committee would advise university trustees on how social issues should affect their investment policies. Similar committees exist at universities including Georgetown and Columbia.

Initially, SDS planned to focus on specific companies as opposed to industries, but the national momentum behind fossil fuel divestment provides a critical opportunity, Alani says.

Last year, Alani asked university officials whether the school had investments in several companies, including Chevron. He specifically asked university officials about Chevron, which bought Texaco a decade ago, because courts in Ecuador found the company liable for substantial pollution in the Amazon rain forest. University officials confirmed that the school had money invested in the company, Alani says.

The university's Investment Office will tell students, faculty, staff, and alumni whether the UR has investments in specific companies, says university spokesperson Sara Miller. But the school doesn't disclose that information to the public, she says.

"University policy precludes us from commenting on investment matters other than what is found on the endowment website," Miller said in an e-mail.

Alani says the environmental degradation caused by the fossil fuel industry is one reason why colleges and universities should stop investing in the companies. The industry also puts money into fighting climate change legislation, he says.

The UR has taken steps to reduce energy consumption in its buildings. And it purchases local food items, provides incentives for employees to carpool, and purchases renewable energy credits to cover a chunk of its energy consumption.

"There are certain things that the university has taken a stand on and that's commendable," Alani says. "I would just like to see the university continue to make that kind of progress when it comes to decisions on how it invests the endowment money."

The university has policies governing how its endowment is invested, including a social investment policy. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni can submit requests for action on a specific security and the UR board's Investment Committee reviews and responds to the requests, Miller says.

Under President Christopher Dahl, SUNY Geneseo signed on to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Change Commitment.

Under that commitment, Geneseo has pledged to track and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And the college is supposed to incorporate issues around climate change and sustainability into its academic program. The school has also taken steps to reduce food waste, increase recycling, and curb energy consumption.

It's with those efforts in mind that junior Jennifer Benson, sophomore Jessica Kroenert, and senior Allison Hoppe, formed Divest SUNY Geneseo.

The school itself doesn't have any long-term investments, but two affiliated organizations do have mutual fund investments, school administrators say. The funds include a mix of stocks, and commonly include holdings in fossil fuel companies, administrators say.

One of the organizations is the Geneseo Foundation, a nonprofit which maintains an approximately $18 million fund used for scholarships, research, and student programs. All of the invested money comes from donations, administrators say. The other is Campus Auxiliary Services, a nonprofit company that oversees services including campus dining, laundry machines, and waste management.

Divest SUNY Geneseo wants the foundation and Campus Auxiliary Services to get rid of any investments they have in fossil fuel companies.

"No matter when it happens, fossil fuels are nonrenewable and we're going to run out," Benson says. "The earlier we can start transitioning and the more support we can have for renewable energy, the better it will be not only for the institution and its investments, but also for the environment and our health."

The Geneseo administration doesn't have a position on divestment, says a statement from college officials. The foundation and the auxiliary services each have their own board of trustees, which makes decisions about investments. And administrators say they have confidence in the boards.

Students at other SUNY schools, including Purchase, Stony Brook, and the College of Environmental Science and Forestry are campaigning for divestment, too. And the Divest SUNY Geneseo leaders see an opportunity for their school to be a leader among state college campuses.

"Really, what this country needs and what this state needs is to invest more in renewable sources of energy," says sophomore Kroenert.

Ultimately, the organizers realize that student, alumni, faculty, and staff pressure are the keys to a successful campaign. Divest SUNY Geneseo has collected approximately 100 student signatures supporting their cause. And more than 200 people have signed an Internet petition posted on, though Divest SUNY Geneseo didn't start that petition.

Beyond the environmental and social arguments for divesting from the fossil fuel industry, the students also say there's a business case.

The industry deals in a finite resource. And while its stocks have historically offered investors good returns, that may not be the case in the future as reserves dwindle and resources become harder to extract.

And the investment policies of schools may soon become an issue of competitiveness, particularly when it comes to attracting students and faculty.

Alani, who also works as a campus tour guide at UR, says that prospective students often ask him about campus sustainability policies and efforts. And students at UR's peers, including Syracuse University, are also pushing for their schools to divest from fossil fuels.

Hoppe, Kroenert, and Benson say Geneseo officials highlight environmental initiatives and commitments when they market the school to potential students. The divestment movement is growing and attracting more public and media attention, which means more potential students are going to have the issue on their minds.

"It's something that's going to be in the public eye for a while and hopefully that will be something that will encourage schools to take action," Hoppe says.

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