GU Fossil Free Student on Georgetown’s Road to Divestment
By Sadie Morris
SFS ’22 Student in the Climate Change Pathway, Member of GU Fossil Free
On Feb. 6, 2020, Georgetown University became one of the most prestigious universities to announce a plan to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. The story of this decision began in 2013 when several Georgetown students joined the growing wave of divestment campaigns across American university campuses and launched their own campaign demanding that Georgetown divest from fossil fuel companies. GU Fossil Free was born.
From its inception, GUFF (as the campaign is affectionately called) recognized three facts and utilized these facts as guiding principles. First, climate change affects those living today and those generations to come. Second, climate change is a social and environmental justice issue. Third, it is against Georgetown’s values as a Jesuit institution and as an institution of higher learning to be invested in an industry that is directly responsible for exacerbating social and environmental justice issues.
But the path to divestment would not be as easy as explaining that simple logic to the Board of Directors. Over the years, GUFF bounced between direct action in order to demand attention to working with the administration on detailed investment policies. For this reason, Georgetown’s divestment is both about the actual act of divesting from fossil fuels and about the larger question of the role of student activism in pushing for change on campus.
Just two months after the start of the campaign in January of 2013, GUFF’s initial petition for full divestment from fossil fuel and coal companies in the next five years had received 1,500 signatures. GUFF had achieved this number through press releases, banner drops, dorm storming and outreach with other student groups including both the GU College Republicans and College Democrats.
By August of 2014, GUFF had modified its proposal through conversations with students, administrators, alumni, faculty and the University’s Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility (CISR) to only divest from the top 200 largest fossil fuel and coal companies. This new proposal also included a section on the financial implications of divestment for the first time, highlighting how the founders of GUFF were originally more concerned with the moral implications of fossil fuel investment but engagement with the administration brought finances more heavily into the equation.
Despite the extensive dialogue and support for divestment on campus, the CISR did not endorse the divestment proposal. GUFF once again switched to the direct action side of their dual technique and walked-in on the Board of Director’s Feb. 2015 meeting and stormed Gaston Stage during Jim Yong Kim’s speech. At the same time, GUFF engaged the larger GU community through various open letters and op-ed pieces in student news publications. They also utilized a student referendum to further pressure the Board of Directors but Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) Senate voted down the referendum in November of 2015 before it could go to a vote.
After this period of accelerated action, the GU administration once again engaged with GUFF. Together they passed a new policy on socially responsible investing in 2017 and divested from tar sands in November of that year.
With these successes under their belt and the new weight of the Socially Responsible Investing Policy to back up their claims, GUFF submitted a new proposal for full divestment from fossil fuel companies in January of 2019. After initially asking for a few clarifications that came in the form of a memo in the spring of 2019, the administration once again returned to a state of limited engagement with GUFF.
So, as they did back in 2014, GUFF turned to direct action in the GU community to force engagement. This is what led to the student referendum vote on Feb. 6 (this time not struck down by the GUSA Senate prior to a student vote). It also led to a new open faculty letter and a statement of support by the graduate student union, Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees.
The effect was almost immediate — CISR reached out to GUFF asking for a meeting after nearly half a year of radio-silence mere hours after the student referendum passed the GUSA Senate. In the meeting, CISR disclosed that they had been working on their own proposal for divestment and that they planned to bring their proposal to a vote in early February. They cautioned GUFF against any sort of accelerated action as “it would not be helpful” in pressuring the Board of Directors to vote favorably.
GUFF was shocked that after seven years of student engagement on divestment that CISR now considered student input on divestment to be “unhelpful,” especially since it was through work of GUFF members that divestment became a serious conversation in the first place. GUFF decided to stick to their roots and continue the student referendum and collecting faculty signatures. Ultimately, GU voted to divest and made their announcement the same day as the student vote before voting had ended. The referendum passed with 90.65 percent of the vote with a 30.8 percent participation rate.
Had the announcement come after the vote, it would have surely seemed as if GU was capitulating to student pressure, and we know that’s not the story they wanted to tell. Instead, they framed divestment as a logical next step in moving the campus in an environmental direction (which is not entirely fabricated but surely not the full story). Nearly absent was recognition of the student activist campaign that spurred this conversation from the beginning and whose proposal the ultimately agreed upon by GU proposal was modeled after.
I appreciate the opportunity to write this blog post for the Core Pathways Program because I think it is important for the student activism side of the story to be told–especially to fellow students who are engaging in climate work and perhaps wondering whether they are making any difference at all. You are making a difference. The conversation regarding Georgetown’s divestment began with student pressure and there will be student pressure and oversight until Georgetown has fully divested.