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Gonzaga students call on university to divest from fossil fuels

May 8, 2017 Updated Mon., May 8, 2017 at 11:28 p.m.

This April 2, 2010 file photo shows a Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame that is part of normal plant operations, in Anacortes, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
This April 2, 2010 file photo shows a Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame that is part of normal plant operations, in Anacortes, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Joining a growing campaign on college campuses across the U.S., Gonzaga University student leaders are calling on the Spokane school to divest its $200 million-plus endowment from fossil fuels.

The Gonzaga Student Body Association Senate voted last week for a resolution asking the university’s board of trustees to remove endowment investments from the 200 most carbon-intensive companies by 2020. That list includes Coal India, Gazprom, PetroChina, ExxonMobil and BP.

“Doing so will formally recognize the reality and urgency of the climate crisis and show fidelity to our Jesuit, Catholic, humanistic mission and to our endowment Investment Policy and Guidelines,” the resolution states.

The Gonzaga Environmental Organization student club has campaigned for divestment for two years and collected signatures from hundreds of students and alumni in support of the resolution.

Pressure on the administration is likely to grow next academic year as the Faculty Senate considers the same resolution, said Brian Henning, a Gonzaga philosophy and environmental studies professor and faculty leader of the Fossil Free Gonzaga campaign. About a third of all faculty have signed in support of the resolution so far, Henning said.

Gonzaga’s endowment was valued at $204 million as of May 31, 2016. If the university divests from fossil fuels, it would be the first Jesuit university to do so, though not the first Catholic school. Three years ago the University of Dayton in Ohio began divesting coal and fossil fuels from its $670 million investment pool.

The University of Washington Board of Regents voted in 2015 to prohibit direct investment of endowment funds in publicly traded companies whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation.

Caleb Dawson, Gonzaga’s student body president, said he has heard this year from many students – from those in Honors and the Environmental Studies Department to members of the Gonzaga Environmental Organization – saying they hope GU pursues divestment strategies. Student leaders of sustainability sought the resolution through the student association.

“This formal recommendation process demonstrates to our university administration that students are passionate about and committed to shared governance in realizing our mission of social justice and sustainability specifically,” Dawson said. “We are hopeful for future collaborations and initiatives between students, staff, faculty, administrators and board members to become better stewards of and leaders for our environment.”

Gonzaga has studied the issue of fossil fuels ownership for several years, largely through the work of the board’s investment committee, said Mary Joan Hahn, the university’s Community and Public Relations director.

The Senate resolution and activism of the Gonzaga Environmental Organization “is an expression of one of the many strategies that demonstrate action guided by concern for our planet,” Hahn said. “The students’ commitment, their work with the university to research this complex issue and their acknowledgment of a forward-looking timeline is congruent with Gonzaga’s overall goals around improving environmental sustainability.”

She added, “This issue is likely to remain a priority for some time and we look forward to working with the students in the near future.”

Hahn also listed sustainability initiatives Gonzaga has embraced in recent years, including a Climate Action Plan that aims for the university to achieve climate neutrality, or zero emissions, by 2050; a Real Food Challenge in which GU pledged that 25 percent of food served on campus be sourced from ecologically sound, fair and humane, and community-based providers by 2020; and sustainable building practices under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

Gonzaga also has supported Spokane Transit Authority’s Central City Line using electric buses, and last week added three bee apiaries to become the first educational institution in Washington to be certified as an affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program.

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