The Student Government Association (SGA) Senate unanimously approved two resolutions during their Nov. 19 meeting: one urges the College to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, the other initiates an SGA-funded textbook provision program.
The divestment resolution, presented to Senate by the Climate Justice Collective (CJC), also presses the College to post quarterly investment statements on the St. Olaf website and make “total divestment from unethical investments” the main priority of the St. Olaf Investment Committee’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) policy, among other things.
The textbook resolution, presented to Senate by SGA President Devon Nielsen ’20 and Vice President Ariel Mota Alves ’20, mandates that $5,000 of SGA’s budget be spent each year on course-required textbooks to be loaned to students through Rolvaag Memorial Library. This new textbook program, the SGA Textbook Program Senate Initiative, aims to make course-required textbooks more accessible.
About eight percent of St. Olaf’s $534 million endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry. Those investments are anathema to CJC, a student group that pushes for environmental justice. The divestment resolution urges St. Olaf not to make any future investments in fossil fuel companies given their role in fueling climate change.
The resolution emphasizes the fact that St. Olaf has complete control over whether it divests even though the College’s investments are handled by Cornerstone Partners, a consulting firm
“Our job is to invest the portfolio within the guidelines set by our clients, so what we’re not going to do is put our own views ahead of St. Olaf’s,” said Cornerstone Partners Senior Managing Director David Russell at a Nov. 18 meeting. “You don’t want me making decisions on what St. Olaf decides to include or not include in the portfolio.”
So far though, the College has shown no signs of intending to divest. The President’s Leadership Team did not answer whether the College views itself as obligated to follow Senate resolutions when asked by the Messenger.
Chief Investment Officer Mark Gelle did not comment on whether the Investment Committee would heed the resolution’s call to list “total divestment from unethical investments” as the primary concern of its ESG policy.
Whether divestment has the power to reduce carbon emissions is a contested question. Shell Oil Company, Peabody Energy and the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have all reported that the divestment movement can have negative material consequences for the fossil fuel industry.
But a divested St. Olaf, even coupled with other divested colleges and universities, might not have the power to reduce emissions.
Russell said that, while some companies own enough stocks to influence emissions, “the college and university ecosystem, collectively, doesn’t really, in and of itself, consist of that much of the market.”
Even if a divested St. Olaf cannot stunt fossil fuel emissions, CJC member Abby Becker ’20 said divesting is still desirable because it acts as a moral statement.
The Resolution’s push for the College to release Total Investment Statements might also fail to materialize. Cornerstone Partners will not reveal the names of companies their clients privately invest in, nor the amount they invest, Gelle said.
But CJC has managed to align the Senate with their cause. The Resolution commits the Senate to a pro-divestment stance, to encouraging the student body to learn more about ESG policy and divestment, and to stand against the destruction of marginalized communities and the environment.
“It’s a stepping stone, we now have a bigger platform to run the divestment campaign,” Becker said.
With the new resolution and their popular Sept. 20 climate strike, CJC has demonstrated their capacity to garner student support for their aims twice in short order.
The textbook resolution initiates the SGA Textbook Project Senate Initiative, which will annually set aside $5,000 of the SGA’s budget for purchasing course-required textbooks to be loaned to students through Rolvaag Memorial Library.
The resolution cites a survey conducted by the SGA Textbook Task Force – a group tasked with gauging students’ textbook purchasing experience. The survey “concluded that a significant amount of St. Olaf students show a demonstrated need for access to textbooks.”
Of students surveyed, only a third feel that they can afford their textbooks, half have not purchased a book for a class because of its cost and half believe that their ability to complete coursework was affected by not having a textbook.
“Purchasing textbooks has always been a hardship for students from low-income backgrounds who have to carry an already long list of financial responsibilities, and this is something that people don’t always talk about,” Mota Alves said.
While Rolvaag already loans students textbooks for some courses through its Course Reserve system, half of surveyed students said the library does not offer the textbooks they need. And almost 60 percent said the textbooks they need had already been checked out when they tried to borrow them.
To alleviate these problems as efficiently as possible, the Textbook Project will use a set of rules to determine which textbooks it should purchase and how many. The Textbook Project Committee – a group tasked with carrying out the project – will handle the selection process, and Rolvaag will purchase the chosen textbooks using the $5,000 set aside by SGA. The $5,000 will be split evenly across both semesters – $2,500 worth of textbooks will be purchased for fall courses and $2,500 for spring courses.
Rolvaag will loan these textbooks to students for two hour intervals, Mota Alves said.
The Project Committee will publicize the project by encouraging faculty to tell their students about it and advertising it on social media, among other methods. At the end of each semester, the Committee will evaluate the program by assessing usage and getting recommendations from students.
The Committee will form in time to purchase textbooks for fall semester 2020, Mota Alves said.
The Resolution also initiates a Committee-led textbook drive to collect unused textbooks from students and faculty at the end of each academic year. The Committee will organize the textbooks into a bank and loan them to students on a first-come-first-serve basis at the beginning of the following year.
The textbook drive will begin collecting textbooks during the end of the next academic year, Mota Alves said.
“Textbooks is my biggest project,” Mota Alves said. “It’s something that is very close to my heart and I must admit that I was emotionally overwhelmed with the passing of the resolution.”