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SGA Senate expresses support for divestment

The Climate Justice Collective (CJC), which led the hundreds-strong climate strike, received a show of support from the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate on Oct. 22, as an ample majority of senators expressed approval for divesting the College’s endowment from fossil fuel companies.

SGA Vice President Ariel Mota Alves ’20 invited CJC to describe their aims, namely divestment, to the SGA Senate in the wake of the prominent Sept. 20 climate strike. During the meeting, Hoyme Senator Logan Graham ’23 motioned for an unofficial ballot gauging whether senators would support a resolution urging the College to divest 23 voted yes, three voted maybe and one abstained. 

The ballot is likely a harbinger that Senate will approve a divestment resolution when CJC presents one. Though a resolution would not obligate St. Olaf to divest, it would send a message that the student body wants the College’s money out of the fossil fuel industry. Mota Alves is currently working to schedule CJC’s presentation of a resolution in the next few weeks.

A draft of CJC’s resolution obtained by the Manitou Messenger would commit Senate to advocate for divestment from fossil fuel companies and the right of students to know what corporations the College invests in, among other things.

About eight percent of St. Olaf’s $534 million endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry as of September, said Chief Investment Officer Mark Gelle. CJC argued at the meeting that St. Olaf has an ethical obligation to divest and that divestment is a wise financial decision.

Gelle said that while it may be financially unwise for the College to invest further in fossil fuel stocks, immediate divestment would result in the College losing money because the stocks’ value is currently low. 

The size of St. Olaf’s investments and the names of the companies it is invested in have not been publicly accessible since January 2018, when the College hired investment consulting firm Cornerstone Partners. The firm prohibits the College from disclosing this information, Gelle said. CJC takes issue with the opacity of the investments, arguing that making them visible “is the only way that you can make sure those investments are ethical,” CJC member Abby Becker ’21 said.

Senator River Gerding ’21 asked CJC if divestment would prevent St. Olaf from investing in index funds, which include every stock from a financial index like the S&P 500. Many index funds include shares of fossil fuel companies. CJC member Ian Roback ’21 responded that the answer would depend on the percentage of the fund allocated towards the fossil fuel industry.

Senator Melie Ekunno ’21 asked CJC if the resolution will include parameters for future investments with money divested from the fossil fuel industry. Becker answered that CJC intends to push St. Olaf to invest in “ethical” endeavors, including renewable energy, once the College has divested.

While CJC argues divestment can reduce carbon emissions, President David Anderson ’74 said in a 2013 video memo that “disinvestment would not result in one molecule less of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere.” Nonetheless, 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 at large.

On behalf of the President’s Leadership Team (PLT), Associate Director of Media Relations Kari VanderVeen wrote in an email, “it is always our hope that, before simply issuing a resolution, SGA members engage in discussion with college staff and faculty about the issue and find meaningful ways for students to participate in the work to improve our campus community.”

 The PLT did not comment on whether the College views itself as obligated to follow Senate resolutions.

For Senate to approve a resolution, two thirds of senators must vote yes for it. CJC looks to have a two thirds majority and then some.

The proposed divestment resolution

irwin2@stolaf.edu