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Students push for divestment from fossil fuel companies

A student campaign is urging the administration to avoid giving endowment funds to fossil fuel companies.

A divestment campaign has been pushed by students at Syracuse University to freeze out possible fossil fuel companies who have received money from the school’s endowments. The students are planning on working with Nancy Cantor to accomplish some form of independence from the fossil fuel industry.

The campaign was formed after the founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben, came to speak at Hendricks Chapel on October 10th. The chapel was filled to capacity and the crowd was engaged, which lead to long lines during the Q and A session. 

Photo: Brandon Weight

"Well, we know that fossil fuel companies are principally concerned about two things: their bottom line and their public image.”
- Bill McKibben, 350.org founder

Video: The SU Eco-Reps talk about the environment

“Having students speak up during the conference really said something to us,” said Zach Goldberg, leader of the campaign. “The lecture was really invigorating and I think that was the main reason why so many students spoke up.”

With such high attendance and a demonstrated willingness to get involved, the opportunity to start something at the school seemed perfect. Already leading an environmental group called Eco-Reps, Goldberg joined together with some Eco-Rep members along with two separate groups to put McKibben's words into action. 

In an email newsletter that McKibben sends to members of 350.org, he said that college’s divestment from fossil fuel companies was one of the biggest points in his “Do The Math” tour. The importance of the campaign is hitting the industry where it hurts.

“Well, we know that fossil fuel companies are principally concerned about two things: their bottom line and their public image,” said McKibben. “A nationwide movement forcing our schools to divest from fossil fuels will deal a serious blow to both.”

McKibben used similar language in his lecture to speak of the importance of divestment, especially when speaking at a university.

“The one thing that he mentioned that spoke volumes to all of us was the power of Oil companies. We just think that some of the power should be taken out of their hands,” said Goldberg.

The handful of students that gathered to talk about the divestment campaign did so with their own opinions in mind. Conversation was free flowing, but with big decisions comes patience and understanding. After emailing the chancellor for a release of the names of the companies that are given endowment money, she responded by saying that she was “on the same page” and agrees she wants to move forward with their initiative. The immediate goal is to find out how much money some of the fossil fuel companies are receiving from the university.

The Investment and Endowment Committee of the Board of Trustees oversees the investment portfolio of the university, said Sherburne Abbott, the vice president for sustainability initiatives. In an email, Abbott explained the detail that the board takes in dealing with the long term planning of the school’s funds. In dealing with an issue of this sort, the university will go to a new governance body called the Sustainability Action Council. The council deals with issues of sustainability, prioritizes action for revenue potential and provides feedback to the chancellor, Abbott said.

The divestment campaign initiative has gone nationwide. Schools have begun to join the 350.org campaign, which has reached over 100 schools in less than a month. The most notable of these is Unity College, which became the first college to fully divest from fossil fuel companies. Harvard has gotten national recognition for their student resolution vote passing at a 72 percent clip for divestment from fossil fuel companies. The students are now looking to meet with the school president.

The goal of 350.org is to reach campuses and communities on a personal level. 

“We are a grassroots organization so we don’t have that large of a staff,” said media campaigner Daniel Kessler. “Community organization and activism is everything for our organization. That is why our Do The Math Tour is at the forefront of our attention, right now.”

McKibben and the 350.org group’s plan is designed to evoke some emotion, especially with the students. Goldberg is working with only a few other students to push forward the plan, even after many students pushed for action.

“After we received our first email from the chancellor we were excited but we have to be smart with what we do next. This has to be a group effort and there has to be collaboration from our group,” said Goldberg.

After the Sustainability Action Council meets with the Cantor, they will then move to work with the Board of Trustees and its Investment Endowment committee, said Abbott. The work may take weeks, as the council is forced to look through background information to make a proper analysis. 

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