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History and future of divestment at St. Olaf

Illustration by Kenzie Todd

The fossil fuel industry poses a multi-faceted threat to the wellbeing of our planet, Indigenous sovereignty and the health and wellbeing of all people while disproportionately affecting BIPOC communities. Because of this, the Climate Justice Collective (CJC) at St. Olaf is working to push the institution to divest its multi-million dollar holdings from the industry as soon as possible.

Clovis Curl ’21 and Abby Becker ’21, leaders of the CJC, are part of the team that is currently heading the divestment movement. The fossil fuel divestment movement at St. Olaf has a long history, “going back at least 15 years,” Becker said.

“Divesting our endowment from fossil fuels isn’t going to change the market for fossil fuels, but it would better align with our values,” Curl said. In addition, if all colleges across the country divested, it would be detrimental to the fossil fuel industry.

Over the past few years, St. Olaf has decreased the percentage of the endowment invested in fossil fuels from 12 percent to 6.1 percent, which still works out to a $38,827,939 investment. The CJC says they expect the school to reduce its holdings to less than 1% by 2028. Ideally, the institution would divest sooner, but mutual fund contracts make that difficult.

The St. Olaf investment contracts for fossil fuels naturally expire in 10 to 15 years. “It will cost the institution less money to roll out of their contracts as they expire,” Becker said.

While CJC certainly would like to see total divestment this year, they are just hoping to push the process along as quickly as possible. “The exception to that is their index funds, which we want them to pull out of this year,” Curl said.

The CJC submitted a divestment policy proposal to the Board of Regents and is waiting for feedback from the investment committee. They are hopeful that the committee will agree to divest fully during their final meeting of the year in May.

This movement concerning the College’s financial investments is not the first of its kind. In the 1970s and 1980s, St. Olaf students demanded the institution withdraw its investments in South African companies as a financial and symbolic act of resistance to the apartheid era. Divestment from these companies would ultimately help contribute to the end of this period of racial persecution by putting financial pressure on the oppressive, white minority.

Students first organized to discuss the importance of divesting from South African companies in 1978. Exiled South African reporter Donald Woods spoke on campus that year, urging the institution to divest its assets. In a Messenger article, He is quoted as saying, “Divestment is a question of morality and a question of practicality. If a college trustee says his first duty is to maximize investments, tell him that prostitutes and drugs are more profitable. The issue will not go away — this is not a lot of kooky, way-out students oversimplifying things. It should be examined much more closely than it has been up to now.”

Despite protests and international pressure, St. Olaf College refused to divest. In 1984, Lars Kjeseth ’85, a St. Olaf student, wrote in an article for the Messenger saying that “by maintaining the status quo, the St. Olaf community is denying its solidarity with the oppressed people of South Africa and Namibia.”

In 1979, students presented a proposal to the Board of Regents that requested the immediate divestment from South African companies. The Board killed the motion, defending its holdings.

St. Olaf did not fully divest its investment holdings in South African companies until 1985, seven years after the first published call by students on campus to do so. While the issue of divestment from fossil fuels is undeniably different in a variety of ways, students again ask the institution to stop investing in another actively oppressive and dangerous industry.

Divestment from fossil fuels represents a small step towards climate justice on St. Olaf campus and CJC eagerly awaits news from the investment committee. Curl and Becker want people to know about this movement and to stay aware of what the College is doing with their money now and in the future.

There will be a day of action on Friday, March 5 at 10 a.m. outside of Buntrock Plaza where “students can come and hear more about divestment and specifically Line 3,” Becker said. All are welcome.

For the future generations of students at St. Olaf fighting for divestment of any kind, “just keep asking for more, write a policy proposal—you are more powerful than you think,” Becker said. “Exercise your right to hold people more accountable than we already do.”


From the Mess Archives, 1974