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Did St. Olaf divest from fossil fuels? It’s complicated

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About 6.3 percent of St. Olaf College’s $532 million endowment, or $34 million, is invested in the fossil fuel industry. But, after pressure from a 15-year long student protest movement, the school has agreed to reduce these investments. 

In May 2021, the Investment Committee (part of the Board of Regents) made several changes to its policy after receiving divestment policy proposals and recommendations from both Climate Justice Committee (CJC) and the Student Government Association (SGA) Student Senate. These changes will prevent the school from making new investments in the private fossil fuel industry. According to calculations done by the CJC, the school’s current investment contracts will largely run out by 2034, meaning that less than 1 percent of the endowment will be invested in fossil fuels by that year. 

This change was brought about by widespread protest from students. CJC was originally created about 10 years ago with the purpose of organizing a movement against divestment — it has since shifted towards an anti-Line 3 group, and most recently a group that focuses on mutual aid. In 2019 the group held a climate strike protest, which flooded the Quad with hundreds of students. In 2020 they held weekly meetings and actions, created a petition for divestment which received hundreds of signatures. And in 2021, a “die-in” on a statewide divestment day also drew massive crowds.

Activists celebrated this vicrory but also voiced dissapointment over the lack of faster action, given that climate change is occuring at a rapid pace, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends immediate action to reduce fossil fuel use. 

So what now? Current CJC member Syd Garrison ’23 stressed the need to hold the school accountable. “I think that the school relies on student turnover to suppress any opposition to their policies,” Garrison said. “For example, major protests against racism and the mishandling of Title IX policies happened before I was a student, and I had to do a lot of work to find information on those. I think that the college likes to perform accountability, but they don’t always practice that. We need to hold them accountable.”

They hope that organizations like CJC can educate incoming students on the importance of doing so. 

Garrison thinks new students should know that they have the power to change how the college is run. “Your money that you might be going into debt to pay is being put into this endowment. It’s our money, and we should have the power and the right to demand that the college stop actively investing our money in systems that are making the world and our futures worse. The first interest of this school should be its students, not profit,” Garrison said.

Student organizers have also raised concerns about the college’s investments into other controversial sectors. CJC’s initial divestment recommendations asked the school to divest from private prisons and the defense industry. This issue continues to raise concern, as the school has shown no intentions to divest from these industries. St. Olaf Leftists (formerly St. Olaf Democrats), is also strategizing about ways to encourage this form of divestment.

The reduction of the money that St. Olaf has invested in fossil fuels will not likely cause a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, but this movement towards divestment can be contextualized in terms of a larger divestment trend in higher education. Other private institutions, including Columbia University, the University of Southern California, Yale University, and Macalester College, have all made moves towards divestment following student pressure. In all, 21 American colleges and universities have committed to divestment. 

Carleton College is also currently in the midst of a divestment movement. Divest Carleton is a student organization that has received support from the St. Olaf CJC. Carleton’s Board of Trustees considered divestment when they met last May and plans to continue discussing the issue at their next meeting in late Oct. CJC members have worked closely with Divest Carleton members in the past. Both groups were heavily involved in Northfield Against Line 3. 

Now, organizers at St. Olaf stress the need to work across campuses when fighting for divestment, connecting this school to the larger movement. 

In their first meeting of the semester, longtime CJC organizer Mo Bayzaee ’23 said that, while the group has begun to focus on other issues, “holding the school accountable will probably be the life’s work of this organization for years to come.”

Disclaimer: Charlotte Smith is a member of CJC.

 

smith89@stolaf.edu