In Focus: Trustees and student activists at impasse after divestment proposal rejected

March 3, 2020

It was below freezing. Wind blew flurries of snow everywhere, rendering the coats and gloves students wore relatively useless. But the ugly weather did not stop a group of approximately 50 students from Fossil Free Northwestern from gathering in front of the Technological Institute, unfurling banners with phrases like “Northwestern is complicit in climate injustice.”

“Divest or death,” another sign read. “Which side are you on?”

The students chanted almost non-stop, including a back-and-forth “Divest now!” and a stark warning to the Northwestern community: “Disclose, divest, or it will be our death!”

On Feb. 13 — Fossil Fuel Divestment Day — students at over 50 universities across the country called for their schools to divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies.

None of Northwestern’s Fossil Free members knew that a week later, the school’s Board of Trustees would refuse to act on their demands.

The board rejected Fossil Free Northwestern’s divestment proposal calling on the University to divest its holdings from any of the top 100 coal and oil and gas companies across the world. The trustees wrote that the proposal did not meet the board’s criteria for divestment as outlined in the Statement on Investment Responsibility.

The decision came over a year after students first created and submitted the proposal to the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, a 10-member group that advises the board’s Investment Committee on socially and ethically responsible investing.

Throughout the entire decision-making process, Fossil Free Northwestern members demanded ACIR and the board take action to remedy trustees’ lack of communication and transparency, as well as the excessive length of their deliberations.

After over a year of effort yielding no commitments from trustees and ongoing frustrations with contacting them, Fossil Free Northwestern still finds itself left out in the cold.

“It slipped through the cracks”

The Fossil Free movement at Northwestern isn’t new — over the last eight years, its scope has evolved. In November 2012, students formed DivestNU to lobby trustees to immediately divest from the coal industry and eventually the entire fossil fuel industry, which includes oil and natural gas.

Upon the group’s formation, members circulated a petition calling on the Board of Trustees to divest from the University’s coal holdings. The group demonstrated widespread support for the petition after a referendum on the 2015 Associated Student Government presidential election ballot asking whether students supported coal divestment passed with 74 percent of the vote.

Despite student support, the board voted against coal divestment without ever hearing a proposal or presentation, notifying DivestNU of the decision in 2015. Near the time of that rejection, the organization rebranded, and Fossil Free Northwestern was born the following month.

One of Fossil Free Northwestern’s earliest demonstrations came that November, when the group organized a protest outside of a Board of Trustees meeting in response to their vote.

“There’s a reason coal is for the naughty,” DivestNU wrote in a Letter to the Editor published on the eve of Fossil Fuel Divestment Day in February 2015.

“The NU community can no longer sit back and let the Board disregard its values when it comes to coal divestment,” the organization continued. “We need to see action by the Board of Trustees and be a part of their decisions. Tomorrow, the entire globe will be behind us. We hope you will be too.”

T. Bondurant French (Kellogg ‘76), who still serves on the board, told students who protested at the 2015 board meeting that Northwestern had a negligible holding in coal plants. Students, however, said they could not find a complete list of Northwestern’s direct and indirect investments.

Though Fossil Free Northwestern still existed and held occasional demonstrations, operations decreased significantly for nearly four years. Over time, the group has expanded to advocate for environmental and climate justice.

“It was a very established club, and then because of the various bureaucratic setbacks, people graduated, it slipped through the cracks,” said Communication senior and director of marketing and media for Fossil Free Northwestern Grace Dolezal-Ng.

The origin of divestment

Divestment movements call for institutions to eliminate their stocks, bonds or other investments in certain industries. Their roots extend to issues beyond climate change. Many divestment movements have started on college campuses. One prominent campaign that took hold in the 1980s — aiming to end apartheid in South Africa — eventually caused about 150 educational institutions to divest from companies that conducted business in the country.

Fossil Free, the overarching international fossil fuel divestment campaign, cites the South Africa movement as a clear example of divestment campaigns’ potential success.

The campaign often argues fossil fuel industry divestment is necessary, not just due to the greenhouse gas emissions traceable to fossil fuels, but also because those companies discourage government action on climate change.

“The reason why we haven’t seen the type of climate action that we need to see today is because fossil fuel companies basically have a stranglehold on politicians,” said Richard Brooks, a campaign coordinator for, which launched the international Fossil Free campaign in 2012. “They have too much lobbying power, they have too much political power and they have too much money.”

Over the past few years, the divestment movement has picked up speed. estimates that nearly 1,200 institutions worldwide, from universities to faith-based organizations to the entire Irish government, have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment.

Some, however, question the success of divestment movements. Over time, many have pointed to an economic study published in 1999, which found that political pressure exerted by divestment campaigns on South Africa did not actually harm such companies’ economic prospects.

Brooks said the real marker of success is policy change that supports climate protection and diminishes the fossil fuel industry’s influence.

“It’s not so much about hurting the stock value of fossil fuel companies — that’s not the point of the fossil fuel divestment campaign,” Brooks said. “The point of it is to remove their political power.”

Stop, drop and roll

After four years of relative inaction, Fossil Free Northwestern reemerged in 2019, submitting its most recent divestment proposal to ACIR. The committee recommended the proposal for board consideration in June.

Four students authored the proposal, which primarily calls upon the University to divest from any of the top fossil fuel companies. The proposal also demanded a “stop, drop and roll” technique where Northwestern stops future investments in fossil fuel companies, drops existing investments over a five-year period and rolls out a reinvestment plan in non-fossil fuel companies, particularly those with an emphasis on renewable energy.

“The specter of climate change is no longer looming; it is upon us,” the proposal read.

The authors of the proposal argued that University divestment is necessary because of climate change and its associated human rights costs. They cited $45.4 million in direct investments in oil and gas companies, and an additional $3.9 million in coal companies.

The proposal also pointed to the University’s acknowledgement of climate change as a growing threat.

A year after the students submitted the proposal to ACIR, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the planet experienced its hottest January in recorded history. Scientists also found the rate of sea level rise is accelerating along the U.S. coasts, with the highest rates of increase along the Gulf Coast.

The divestment proposal also linked climate change with disproportionate threats to disadvantaged populations, noting that countries and individuals who use the least amount of fossil fuel are projected to feel the effects of fossil fuel emissions first.

“By investing in fossil fuels, Northwestern is thus investing in environmental injustice,” the proposal stated, “and in an industry which directly poses a threat to the right to life, food, health, education and to an adequate standard of living.”

The proposal called on Northwestern to stop discourse with fossil fuel companies and made the case for the economic and symbolic impact divestment would achieve. In addition to the proposal, Fossil Free Northwestern also uploaded a petition to garnering more than 1,300 alumni, faculty, staff and student signatures urging divestment.

The petition demanded a public statement from the board about its deliberations, a timeline regarding the decision-making process, a “yes” vote on the divestment proposal and an effort to involve Fossil Free Northwestern in the implementation and negotiation process.

The Investment Committee’s rejection

On Feb. 20, the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee formally rejected the divestment proposal, saying it did not meet the criteria set forth in the board’s Statement on Investment Responsibility. However, Fossil Free Northwestern’s proposal was submitted to the board about five months before those criteria were adopted.

The board said the endowment should not be a vehicle for furthering social and political agendas, and that divestment is usually an “ineffective” way to exercise investment responsibility. The investment responsibility statement, however, did not completely eliminate divestment as a potential path the University could take in the future — though the board has now rejected fossil fuel divestment twice.

“The Trustees recognize that, on very rare occasions, a continued investment may be so morally reprehensible, such as investments that directly support slavery, apartheid or genocide, that such investment would necessitate the University’s divestment,” the statement said.

Per the board, fossil fuel divestment does not meet those standards. According to their response to the divestment proposal, excluding entire industries from investment is “detrimental” to the Investment Committee’s stewardship of the endowment.

“This ensures intergenerational fairness, whereby financial support for both current and future Northwestern students, professors and staff is preserved,” the response said.

The trustees did write in their response that they incorporate “environmental, social and governance” principles into their decision-making, and that they have proactively sought investments in areas such as cleaner technology and sustainability. They also mentioned that they are actively limiting investments in areas such as thermal coal.

Audrey DeBruine (Medill ‘19), a co-author of the Fossil Free Northwestern proposal, said she wasn’t particularly surprised the trustees rejected it. Still, she cited current action on fossil fuel divestment from peer institutions and heightened awareness of the effects of climate change as evidence of the issue’s urgency. If there is a time to divest, she said, it is now.

She added that she never felt like the board seriously considered fossil fuel divestment as an issue.

“When we’d come previously with proposals, some of the feedback we got was not on the idea of fossil fuels — it was like, ‘you’re not economists,’ essentially,” DeBruine said. “We know we’re not economists. We’re not trying to go in and say, ‘OK, divest this money and do X, Y and Z with it,’ because that’s clearly not something that we’re capable of doing. That was always kind of frustrating and annoying, and it was just sort of belittling.”

“Students’ voices don’t matter”

Throughout the entire proposal process, members of Fossil Free Northwestern have remained frustrated with the trustees’ inaction and transparency about the divestment proposal.

“We’re just waiting because we’ve done everything we’re supposed to,” said Weinberg sophomore Olivia Stent, Fossil Free Northwestern’s director of special events, before the trustees released their decision. “We’ve had all this campus support, we’ve had faculty support, we’ve had ACIR support, and we’ve been waiting for months and months.”

These frustrations reached a boiling point in November, at ACIR’s first open meeting of the 2019-20 academic year. Over 100 undergraduate students attended, a significantly higher number than typical meetings.

Communication senior and Fossil Free Northwestern member Ross Patten spoke on behalf of NU’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, another student organization calling for divestment that has expressed discontent with the board.

“We are deeply concerned with the lack of transparency surrounding ACIR and the Board’s Investment Committee, the lack of proposals put through and the lack of necessary investment knowledge available to us as students,” Patten said at the meeting.

These concerns continued into Winter Quarter.

While Fossil Free Northwestern listed some of the University’s direct fossil fuel investments in its proposal, Dolezal-Ng said the University makes it extremely difficult to find information on indirect investments. She added the board should hold itself accountable for being transparent with the Northwestern community about the endowment.

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec and Carly Schulman

Dolezal-Ng also said getting in contact with the board is extremely difficult, and Fossil Free Northwestern has neither knowledge of when the board meets nor a direct line of communication with the trustees.

“It’s frustrating to feel, as a student who pays a lot of money in tuition and is going to have a degree from this school, that I as a student have no agency in the broader institution that is Northwestern University,” Dolezal-Ng said.

She added it can often feel like the burden is on students to demand change at the University, and that doing so comes with a lot of sacrifice.

J. Landis Martin, the chair of the board, told The Daily in a February interview that trustees consider the same issues that Fossil Free Northwestern has raised. He said other universities’ moves to divest and the heightened impact of climate change factored into the board’s discussions — though they arrived at a different conclusion than those universities and the student activists.

For students, the long process often felt disheartening and indicative of the trustees’ disconnect from the student body.

“It’s frustrating to feel that students’ voices don’t matter,” Dolezal-Ng said. “This is students’ time, students’ labor, that students are doing because they care about it. For that to not only be ignored, but it feels sometimes actively repressed, is really frustrating.”

“We were told we would probably have a response before today”

The vague timeline around the board’s decision heightened students’ frustrations around communication with the trustees.

When ACIR held its second open meeting of the year on Feb. 11, Fossil Free Northwestern and other students were there. They demanded a timeline that would outline when they could expect an official decision and asked for more information about the board’s deliberation process.

ACIR chair Philip Greenland said he had asked the board five days prior about a possible decision, and their response gave him reason to believe he would have one in time for the meeting.

“We were told that we would probably have a response before today,” Greenland said at the Feb. 11 meeting.

The decision came nine days later.

In response to students’ concerns about communication, Martin said he hoped to see the issue alleviated.

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec and Carly Schulman

“I am sorry that people feel that we’re hard to communicate with,” Martin said. “I hope that we can cure that problem. Not everybody is always going to be happy, so I don’t expect that this will necessarily make everyone happy, by any means, but I’m certainly available and I know that the administration can reach us.”

SESP senior Jonathan Sun, one of two undergraduate members of ACIR, said the committee doesn’t take an “active role” in putting pressure on trustees and has a limited ability to influence their decisions. One way students and faculty could try to push for a more open channel of communication, he said, could be writing a proposal to the board asking for clearer expectations to be set.

Greenland said ACIR is in some ways still a new committee. Fossil Free Northwestern’s divestment proposal was the first one to be submitted to the committee.

“We’re still trying to find our way, to some extent,” Greenland said. “I do not think that future proposals are going to take this long, because I think that the committee will be able to benefit from the fact that we’ve learned how to do this.”

Disrupting the status quo

While Northwestern will keep its holdings in fossil fuel companies, other schools like Georgetown University have announced plans to partially or completely divest from fossil fuels.

The trend is even more stark overseas — slightly over 50 percent of the public universities in the United Kingdom have committed to divest from fossil fuels.

In the past few years, fossil fuel divestment movements have picked up in frequency and intensity. During the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game, student organizers from both schools made national news when they occupied the field at halftime in protest.

“The whole action was grounded in the belief that we are living in a climate crisis right now,” Schwartz said. “It’s very evident, at least to our generation of younger people, and even to older generations our professors represent, that we need to take action. After eight years of campaigning with no movement from the University, it’s clear that the status quo is not working for us as students.”

According to Alyssa Lee, who directs a training and strategy hub for campus divestment movements called Divest Ed, having a large support base composed primarily of students is the key to a successful campaign.

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec and Carly Schulman

“Divestment, at least in the U.S., is a really difficult campaign to run,” Lee said. “They’re trying to get the university to change an investment practice that they mostly are resistant to because it requires them to put out a political statement around the use of fossil fuels and the profitability of that industry.”

Beyond a large support base, Lee said having a strongly stated goal and a long-term strategy can also aid campaigns’ success.

She added that six years is a common amount of time for fossil fuel divestment campaigns to gain traction. Some smaller universities take less time, as do schools with environmentally oriented leaders.

“A lot of campaigns started in 2012, like Northwestern,” she said. “The reason why (divestment) might happen more now is that there’s a lot more backing for divestment in the mainstream.”

Fossil Free Northwestern has taken hope from the rise of universities divesting from fossil fuels.

“It’s really helpful to know that it isn’t just Northwestern, it’s a movement with a lot of other schools at the same caliber,” Stent, the Fossil Free Northwestern director of special events, said. “It’s especially important because Northwestern’s endowment is larger than some small countries’ GDPs.”

Looking ahead

Weinberg sophomore and Fossil Free Northwestern vice president Sarah Fernandez said at the Feb. 11 ACIR meeting she understands the perspective that the campus movement is just a group of students trying to tackle a multi-faceted issue with people in control of a multi-billion dollar endowment.

But, she said, each day Northwestern doesn’t divest, it remains complicit in the destruction of the planet and environmental injustice. To make sure students are aware of the nuanced global effects of climate change, Fossil Free Northwestern also works to educate the Northwestern community. A few hours after their die-in, members of Fossil Free Northwestern led a teach-in that focused on the discriminatory impact of fossil fuel investments in marginalized communities.

The organization has made it clear that it will not stop fighting for divestment, even though the board rejected the proposal. Dolezal-Ng said they will continue to incorporate alumni and faculty, and also expand student involvement.

Fossil Free Northwestern members say they will continue trying to promote awareness about climate change despite the board’s lack of support.

“The fact of the matter is, our planet is dying, and I feel stupid having to say that, because everybody knows it,” Fernandez said at the Feb. 11 meeting. “I’m frustrated because they have enough privilege to be able to ignore the fact that the planet is dying, that humans are dying, but other people don’t, and other people are living that reality every day. Us as students are trying to advocate for those people, and it’s incredible how there’s not much more attention to this.”

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Twitter: @emmaeedmund