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Fossil Free AU & AUSG: the unlikely pair that secured fossil fuel divestment

“This is not going to happen while I’m the chair.”

Those were the exact words chair of the Board of Trustees Jeff Sine told me in the Spring of 2019, the semester after I had published “Board of Trustees rejected 2014 committee report recommending fossil fuel divestment,” a 7,000-word article chronicling a) the divestment story between 2012 and 2014, b) a report by the Advisory Committee on Social Responsible Investing (ACSRI) to the Finance and Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees that concluded the associated cost and risk of divestment was negligible, c) a chapter on the financial aspect of divestment, informed by an extensive series of interviews with Professor Jeff Harris, the Kogod finance professor and investing expert that Professor Paul Wapner jokingly refers to as “the finance guy.” Professors Wapner and Harris, along with several Fossil Free AU activists and administration representatives, chaired the ACSRI in 2014 when it came up with these findings.

Every other word in the last paragraph, I’ve typed dozens of times before along this journey. In articles, in press releases, in Facebook posts, in memos within the AUSG Office of Financial Research, and in official reports. Terms like “ACSRI,” “Jeff Sine,” and “Finance and Investment” are permanently ingrained into my muscle memory. There is one thing that’s different between this article and my previous ones: today, AU no longer has fossil fuel companies on its investment portfolio, directly or indirectly, and it is the first of its kind to do so. Many colleges have publicly committed to divesting, but only in their direct investments directed by separate account managers, not their commingled portfolio that is an amalgamation of mutual funds and managed as a basket. It’s much easier to divest from a direct investment than an indirect investment. So, AU’s decision to divest the rest? That is a monumental achievement. Everyone who was involved should feel proud for what we’ve accomplished as a whole.

For the story of what happened from 2012 to 2018, with interviews from professors, student activists, and the student trustee, feel free to read my article from two years ago. For the story of what happened from then up to 2020 and how we got to today, continue reading.

I cannot help but think how incredible personal these past couple weeks have been for me. I have been reporting on the university’s finances in relation to tuition increases, financial aid, meal plans, and mental health resources for years, but no issue has consumed more of my energy and my love than divestment. Unlike those other topics, I’ve been involved in divestment as not only a reporter and researcher, but also an activist and a filmmaker of sorts. I would spend a couple hours reading a Finance and Investment Committee meeting summary to put together a memo for the AUSG divestment report, before grabbing my camera and meeting people nearby to film a FFAU video that was written like unabashed propaganda. Let me just say, turning my brain on and off between “finance bro” and “propaganda filmmaker” was an extraordinary experience.

I’ve been exposed to a number of on-campus spheres through this journey. For the longest time, my articles went unread and Fossil Free AU’s activism still went unregarded by the vast majority of students, who double-tapped Instagram posts and watched the videos we made, but that’s about it. I think this speaks to the toxic political awareness on AU’s campus: students want to care about every single issue, so no single issue gets the attention it needs. Furthermore, students think that everybody on campus agrees with everybody else, and end up underestimating the value of radical action and organizing. And finally, students think the administration simply does not care about them, and that change can never come about from the grass roots. It’s difficult not to think of this worldview as reality when you attend a campus of consistent racial incidents, fumbling of Title IX cases, and inadequate mental health resources.

So, over the summer of 2019, when AUSG Comptroller Bobby Zitzmann asked me to join his cabinet as a finance researcher so we could tackle this divestment issue through AUSG, a body that is tasked with representing the students’ interests to the larger administration, I did not hesitate despite AUSG’s reputation. Not only did I believe AUSG was the key to bridging the gap between the activists who I initially joined on this issue and the administration who had firmly told me “no” months prior, I believed in Bobby’s idiosyncratic ability to get through to the adults that Fossil Free AU and I could never convince.

So, together, we worked on a report, which ended up hitting 30 pages by publication. The writing of the report happened in congruence with meetings between the AUSG Comptroller’s office and the university Office of Finance.

One of the key elements of pushing divestment through AUSG was a clear shift in style. Bobby and I decided that the topic of discussion wouldn’t be about morals, about political purity, or about whatever negative way you can frame the narrative of grassroots student activism. This meant that we had to communicate with the Board on their level. While Fossil Free AU continued its social media campaigns and video production, the Comptroller and I would focus strictly on convincing the administration through research, which was set on three prongs: financial, legal, and political.

The financial aspect encompassed a) a breakdown of what has changed since 2014 in the context of the ACSRI report, which served as the basis for our research, b) a wide analysis of the performances of mutual funds that contained carbon and those that did not, both domestically and internationally, with volatility as the key metric to attack the idea that divestment still held considerable financial risk, c) an analysis of scholarly literature on the subject, the volume of which had jumped in recent years due to the growing divestment movement, and d) a short reference to the disastrous performance of the S&P 500’s energy sector (this is important because the S&P 500 is a benchmark index fund and its fossil fuel components negative trajectory precipitated the oil crisis we are seeing today).

The legal aspect was of particular interest because the justification for the “No” vote in 2014 was based on the supposition that full divestment would infringe on the university’s fiduciary responsibility obligations, which were enforced by D.C. state law and the IRS.

The political aspect, I believe, was the most important. It is the position Professor Wapner took on the ACSRI report, and the position he described to me when I interviewed him for my comprehensive article published in late 2018. It is the idea that students are not demanding divestment to materially hurt the fossil fuel industry (after all, the fossil fuel industry does plenty of that to themselves). It is not that students are demanding the university satisfy a purity test through its portfolio. It is, rather, that students and educational providers are uniquely fitted to take a stand on whether society will accept a destructive practice that disproportionately threatens the lives of poor people for profit, and should.

“We were under no illusions that the university getting out of the fossil fuels would somehow take down the fossil fuel industry,” Professor Wapner told me during our conversation. “That wasn’t the idea, anyway, The idea was to go on record as an institution of higher learning to take climate change seriously, and recognize that it was driven largely in part by fossil fuel companies, which we know now they [themselves] have known about this.” This was how we approached the political salience of the issue.

The Undergraduate Senate gave us five minutes to present our report. The presentation alone topped thirty slides. We asked for more time, but to no avail. At a later meeting, the senator who proposed the resolution to put the referendum on the Spring AUSG elections was removed by a vote of no confidence from his fellow student representatives. This happened while FFAU was at the meeting as members of the public who were pushing for reform.

The discussion went on for three weeks until it was passed. When the resolution was postponed the second time, I opened my computer and penned a polemic resigning from my position. Here’s a passage.

“I write this letter from a cabinet position, without much influence in the Undergraduate Senate’s proceedings. Regardless, I must express my deep disillusionment with how the AUSG legislative branch has handled this issue, which I am inclined to describe as ill-advised, lollygagging, Kafkaesque, and self-ingratiating.

“Very little attention was paid to the issue that senators here today have assured our office they were interested in. Instead, those involved were subjected to a collective, meticulous, and tireless worship of procedure, rather than participation in a substantive conversation that serves as perhaps the most appurtenant movement to take place on college campuses in the modern era of climate change.

“I am not impressed with this obsession with inaction. This is not why I joined AUSG. This is not why I do the research that I do. However, this is why the student body has found and continues to find zero confidence in their representative body, finding no purpose or direction in appealing to the Undergraduate Senate on the problems affecting their daily lives on campus. For a status-driven body with no real power, it sure holds tightly on to its manufactured self-importance.”

Halfway through the second week of Senate deliberation, however, Doug Kudravetz and the Board of Trustees finalized the final financial decision that would clear the endowment of fossil fuel companies once and for all. However, it would take until April 22 to announce it. My guess is that the announcement was delayed either in light of the extraordinary circumstances revolving around COVID-19, or that the university wanted to wait until after the results from the student body vote on the divestment referendum. The students voted 93 percent in favor, up from 79 percent in 2014.

First of all, I must say, it’s rich for Undergraduate Senate members and other apathetic individuals within AUSG to be jumping on the congratulatory wagon because of a decision the university largely made alone, in discussion with Bobby, for whom I’m eternally grateful. There were a couple senators whose work I’m gracious for, senators who took losses for the greater gain.

It’s important to see the administration's actions as genuine here. The facts speak for themselves. Instead of committing to a timeline of divestment like Georgetown, Syracuse, and Stanford—all of which are still indirectly invested in fossil fuels through index funds—AU made several investing decisions over the course of the last couple semesters. In the Fall of 2019, the Board voted to sell off some commingled components and buy a State Street-managed basket, resulting in the shedding of $6.9 million of its then-$18.8 million carbon exposure. In February of this year, the Board approved of another decision to divest the rest. It was only until now that the decision was actually announced to the public.

The Board could have made a commitment to divest within two years, like how other universities are approaching the movement and as the language of the resolution in the Undergraduate Senate suggested. I asked the author of the resolution, “Why two years? Why not now? We’ve done the research. They can divest now. Did you just pick a random number?” They replied, “The fact of the matter is a timeline was the most feasible option for us to use because it gave us a window to work directly with the Board to ensure divestment and hold them accountable if they weren't divesting.” But the Board had already divested, completely. This is unprecedented, and goes against the obfuscating nature of how university bureaucracies approach these sorts of grassroots movements. The AU Board of Trustees and administrators deserve recognition as well. Last night, Kudravetz emailed me, notifying me of the announcement in the morning. He said, “I’m glad you remained involved. I know you probably thought we weren’t listening when we met, and you protested, and you tweeted……….but we were. Thank you for your passion and leadership over the past few years. It made a real difference.”

I responded:

“As you can probably tell, this process for me has been an incredible journey. Of not just individual advocacy by FFAU but also collaboration between the university administration and trustees, with student government the bridge between the students and those in charge. I hope this relationship between students and administrators can continue, so that we may work toward a better campus for all students, together. Many students still feel unheard, and it is up to student leaders and the administration to move forward on a multitude of other topics, together.

“Finally, I want to say thank you, to you in particular. I’m very proud of this moment, and of your willingness to engage with student activists on this topic. I also think it’s very powerful that FFAU, which is not even recognized by AUCC as a club, played point on this discussion and still received your attention regardless.”

At the end of the day, this was a collaborative effort, when Fossil Free AU, an activist group that has never scheduled a 25Live reservation in its entire existence, and AUSG, perhaps the most stuck-up body on campus with somehow also the most potential to effect change, came together and combined their resources and brought their ideals to the table with the Board of Trustees and university administration to make history on the issue of climate change on college campuses. Remember this moment. There are an entire host of issues that must be addressed next. This is the power of radical action, of student organizing.

Mark Lu is a third-year Economics and Political Science double-major in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Agora.

Image courtesy Fossil Free American University, Creative Commons

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