Students call for universities to divest funds from the fossil fuel industry

Students on the UA campus hold signs to show support for the campaign. Photo courtesy of Divest UA.
Students on the UA campus hold signs to show support for the campaign. Photo courtesy of Divest UA.

College students throughout the state are trying to make Arizona a little bit greener by urging their universities to divest millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

Students at both Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona have launched divestment campaigns, Fossil Free NAU and Divest UA, respectively, that are appealing to the foundations at each school to think about ways they could better invest the school’s money.

These movements are part of the Divestment Student Network, a group of more than 400 universities trying to change the way institutions across the country use their money and shape the future, according to the group’s website.

There does not appear to be an active campaign at Arizona State University.

Fledgling Campaigns

Both divestment campaigns have been launched or taken off in recent months.

Michaela Steiner, a gender and women studies student at NAU who is a major officer with Fossil Free NAU, said that NAU has had a divestment program for a number of years, but that the program died out as upperclassmen graduated and moved on.

“It’s been really exciting because we’ve gotten a lot of new freshmen to be involved,” Steiner said. “It’s become a lot more active this semester.”

Steiner is an exchange student from Colorado where she was active in a divestment program at Fort Lewis College in Durango, and has used her experience to help revive the campaign. She said that Fossil Free NAU has six core organizing members, but that there has been strong support from students, faculty and other community members as they have reached out to grow their numbers.

Divest UA began two months ago and is working to build a stronger following in Tucson, said Pat Brewer, the program’s media coordinator and environmental studies major. They have about a dozen members who regularly attend meetings.

Members of the campaign have also met with students on campus and tried to increase student media coverage to spread awareness, he said. They are also sending emails to UA faculty to encourage them to sign a pledge of support for divesting the funds.

Both organizations are not university sponsored clubs or groups, and operate independently, but have found some groups or departments to collaborate with on their campuses. In Flagstaff, Fossil Free NAU has partnered with an environmental action team at the school, and Divest UA has found some support in the ecology department.

The Goal

Divest UA and Fossil Free NAU both want their respective universities to pull their investments from the top 200 companies based on their carbon shares, which include coal holdings and other forms of burnable gas, and reinvest them in greener industries.

“We can find other places to move this cash that’s going to be more sustainable,” Brewer said.

Divest UA has already met with members of the finance board of the UA Foundation, which manages alumni donations and tuition money, Brewer said. They are calling for a five-year plan to pull investments from the fossil fuel industry, which will allow for an easier and less drastic process.

“They seemed to, on a personal level, be really responsive to what we were saying,” he said. “But at the same time they came back with a really strong message that it’s not a moral issue… They’re looking at it purely black and white from an economic standpoint.”

A typical mutual fund devotes 10 percent of its money to the fossil fuel industry, Brewer said, and according to the email that Divest UA is sending to faculty, UA’s endowment totals $612 million. That implicates $61 million being reinvested elsewhere.

The UA Foundation could not be reached for comment after a number of attempts to contact someone to speak about divesting the funds.

Students at NAU prepare banners last year. Photo courtesy of Fossil Free NAU.
Students at NAU prepare banners last year. Photo courtesy of Fossil Free NAU.

At NAU, the campaign has not been able to work with the NAU Foundation yet, Steiner said. NAU’s total endowment figures are not public because the foundation is a private entity.

Fossil Free NAU is hoping to have enough campus and community support early next year to be able to approach the NAU Foundation and help them plan a complete divestment in the first half of 2015, Steiner said.

“We would love to see fossil fuel divestment by May, which seems like a really quick goal,” Steiner said. Part of their strategy will be working with those who are giving the university its money by working on a letter writing operation to alumni and other school donors.

Steiner said that Fossil Free NAU will “need a bit more in place” before they can talk with the foundation.


Future Plans and Reinvestment

According to Steiner, the key to successful divestment will stem from support from beyond the NAU campus. There is a city divestment organization and a divestment movement strictly amongst NAU faculty members, and she is hoping to work with all of them to make change happen.

“I definitely feel like there is strong support and receptivity,” Steiner said, and that “we haven’t fully tapped into the potential that is at the school and in the community.”

Fossil Free NAU plans to work with students studying economics to be able to present a stronger business case for divestment to the NAU Foundation, Steiner said. They will also have some suggestions about where the funds are reinvested when that happens.

“We are really hoping the money can go into a green revolving fund or local initiatives,” Steiner said.

Divest UA is also hoping that UA’s reinvestment will be focused on green energy. Brewer said that a key element of their plan to persuade the foundation is to present a strong business case in favor of green industries.

A UA student holds a sign to demonstrate student support for divestment. Photo courtesy of Divest UA.
A UA student holds a sign to demonstrate student support for divestment. Photo courtesy of Divest UA.

“Just presenting a moral case to an economic institution is not going to be a successful tactic,” he said.

Brewer even said that divesting from the fossil fuel industry could be saving the university from serious financial issues in the future: some research indicates that the fossil fuel world is a bubble that is about to burst, not unlike the housing crisis several years ago, he said.

“Every year [clean energy] is becoming much more affordable and much more viable economically,” Brewer said. “We aren’t necessarily trying to force their hand one way or the other, we’re really just trying to get them out of something that’s not sustainable either for the earth or for their budget.”

Both groups are optimistic about their goals and the support they feel from the community and each other. Steiner said that she feels a real momentum in the state, and that divestment can be achieved.

“We have high hopes and a high vision for divestment,” Steiner said.

Zac Baker is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona. Reach him at, or follow him on Twitter at @zj_baker.

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