Endowment’s fossil fuel stocks threaten future

It’s time for St. Olaf College to divest from fossil fuels.

St. Olaf has an endowment of more than $300 million, and, like many colleges, keeps a portion of that money invested in fossil fuel companies. According to the St. Olaf Treasurer’s Office website, 1.6 percent of the college’s endowment was allocated to the oil and gas industry as of May 31, 2012, which amounts to more than $4 million.

But supporting the fossil fuel industry does not match what I see to be the ideals and the long-term interests of the college and its student body. Certainly, the main purpose of the college’s endowment is, and should be, to get a financial return to support the college’s educational goals, but this doesn’t mean that morality should be checked at the door. The college’s endowment should not be grown at the expense of funding industries whose actions are inimical to its long-term interests – and those of its students.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that global climate change is one of the greatest threats to ever confront the human race simply hasn’t done their research. Climate change has the potential – growing more likely by the day – to adversely affect every woman, man, child, animal, plant and ecosystem on the face of the planet for millennia to come.

And it isn’t just an environmental problem – it’s an economic one. Increasing temperatures mean rising sea levels, shifting agricultural zones and more frequent natural disasters like “superstorm” Sandy and the recent Colorado wildfires, all of which add up to economic devastation on a scale dwarfed by any possible impact of environmental regulation.

The point is, climate change is a big deal, especially for college students who are going to have to live in the world fashioned by current policy makers.

As climate activist Bill McKibben wrote in his recent Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” “If [students’] college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree.” Slowing the advance of climate change is not unrelated to our education; rather, it is inseparably entwined with it.

I am not suggesting that St. Olaf sacrifice financial security for social goals; I am merely suggesting that the college look for a way to achieve its financial goals without supporting an industry that undermines the very integrity of students’ futures. Surely, given the wide variety of investment opportunities available, the college can find another way to achieve the desired returns.

Two colleges have already made fossil fuel divestment work: Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in New Hampshire. In an open letter to other college presidents, Unity College President Stephen Mulkey wrote, “Failure to provide ethical leadership on an issue that has the potential to be the most profoundly negative factor in the lives of our students is unacceptable.” The example provided by these two pioneering institutions shows that divestment is a practical possibility and can be accomplished in a financially responsible way.

I am a St. Olaf student, and that means that I have reaped the benefits of the current financial stewardship of the college’s endowment. I am deeply grateful for all the donors and administrators who have helped provide me and my peers with the world-class education that only St. Olaf can provide. I do not mean to detract from their hard work and generosity. My intention is merely to propose that the college’s investment decisions be made with ethical considerations in mind.

It is not just my future at stake – it is the future of every St. Olaf student for generations to come.

Managing Editor Ethan Hiedeman ’13 hiedeman@stolaf.edu is from Hastings, Minn. He majors in political science with a concentration in environmental studies.