Fueling divestment

Students push for Chico State to end oil investments

Two of the students leading the charge for the university to divest from the oil industry are Kaitlin Haley (left) and Olivia Longstaff.

Two of the students leading the charge for the university to divest from the oil industry are Kaitlin Haley (left) and Olivia Longstaff.

PHOTO by tom gascoyne

Over the past month, Chico State students have put on a couple of campus demonstrations to highlight an advisory measure on the Associated Students ballot asking the University Foundation to divest from the fossil-fuel industry.

Those demonstrations included the “Kendall Hall oil spill,” in which a group of about 15 students holding a large piece of plastic tarp emerged from the front doors of the building that houses the administration to represent an oil spill spreading across campus.

More recently, the students draped large pieces of material, each with a letter, spelling “DIVEST” from the stairwell openings beginning at the top floor of Butte Hall. Two who took part explained that this was part of an ongoing nationwide movement by students trying to get their respective universities to withdraw investments in the top 200 fossil-fuel companies.

Olivia Longstaff and Kaitlin Haley are in professor Mark Stemen’s Geography 440 class called Environmental Thought in Action, and they both sit on the school’s Environmental Affairs Council, which initiated the divestment campaign.

Haley said the effort is also taking hold at Butte College as well as the other California State University and University of California campuses.

“It passed at San Fransico State, which has already divested,” Longstaff said.

The endeavor isn’t isolated to colleges and universities. It also includes religious groups and other organizations. Residents in cities including Napa, Nevada City and Oakland have signed on to the effort, too, according to gofossilfree.org, a website uniting those involved in the movement.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to recommend the City’s Retirement Board divest its municipal pension funds from oil companies. Ultimately, the board did not take the recommendation.

The wording on the Chico State ballot measure, which appeared during this week’s election, asked: “Should the Associated Students encourage the University Foundation to immediately cease all new investments in the largest 200 fossil fuel companies, and to fully divest all of their holdings from these companies within the next four years?”

And the Students for Divestment statement says they “are calling on our University to align its financial investments with its outstanding dedication and commitment to justice and sustainability.”

It urges students to join others across the nation who are “standing up for a socially and environmentally just world. … Let’s find ourselves on the right side of history.”

At Chico State, the AS gives money to the University Foundation, which then invests it. The foundation also accepts donations to the school and then invests that money. The foundation’s investments, according to a story in The Orion last October, include ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. The AS has given the foundation a total of $271,000 in student money to invest over the years.

For its part, the University Foundation said in a statement that if the measure was passed and implemented, there would be three distinct impacts: Internal operations would be affected by placing restrictions on those managing the investments and funding transactions; the divestment would disrupt the economic stability provided by the current “diversification of assets”; and it could affect external relations in that “a few specific donors directly involved in the fossil-fuel industry would likely have the strongest response.”

Stemen said he is proud of the students’ efforts, which included gathering 1,700 signatures to qualify the measure (only 800 were needed), and that the school has a responsibility in this day and age not to support fossil-fuel companies.

“With business conflicted, and governments gridlocked,” he said, “I believe that public-good institutions like universities have an important contribution to the discussions taking place around climate change and our global future.”

Stemen said that the California Faculty Association has come out in support of divestment and that a Chico State faculty petition is also in the works.

“We are looking to sign up a hundred faculty,” he said. “Just like Harvard.”

He was referring to an open letter presented April 11 by members of the Harvard University faculty to the school’s president calling for divestment of the university’s endowment—the largest university endowment in the world—from fossil-fuel industries.

Of course, because the measure is only advisory, it carries no legal weight. Results of the vote were not known by press time, but three years ago, 76 percent of student voters said “no” to the building of the three-level, $14 million parking structure that now sits on the corner of Second and Normal streets.

Still, Haley holds out hope for the effort to get the university to divest.

“Our campus is called a sustainable campus and we have all these different programs working toward making it more sustainable,” she said. “It doesn’t go along with our morals to be invested in fossil-fuel companies, which contribute to climate change.”