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GU’s board votes against fossil fuel divestiture, but will invest $10 million to combat climate change

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 11, 2018

 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
(Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga University won’t remove fossil fuel investments from its $228 million endowment, but it will put $10 million into companies researching how to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.

The university’s board of trustees voted Friday to adopt the new investment strategy, which they said reflects GU’s concerns for the environment and its “Jesuit, Catholic and humanistic mission.”

The board sought to strike a balance between advocating for the environment and protecting the earnings of the endowment, which generates about $8.7 million annually for the university, including $5.7 million for student scholarships, said Joe Smith, GU’s chief financial officer.

A consultant estimated that divesting the endowment from fossil fuel companies would cost about $1.7 million annually in additional fees and lower returns, Smith said.

The decision disappointed members of Fossil Free Gonzaga, which lobbied for stronger action.

Olivia Jackiewicz, a Gonzaga senior, called the board’s action “green washing.”

“Our generation will be most affected by climate change,” said Jackiewicz, an environmental studies major. “It’s challenging to be a part of an institution that continues to profit from investing in fossil fuels while having a commitment to social justice and educating our hearts and minds.”

Last year, the Gonzaga Study Body Association passed a resolution calling for the university to divest its endowment from the “200 most carbon-intensive companies.” The global list includes the top publicly traded companies that produce coal or oil and gas.

Gonzaga’s position contrasts with action taken by its sister Jesuit institution – Seattle University – which voted in September to divest its endowment from fossil fuels within five years, said Brian Henning, chair and professor in GU’s Environmental Studies Department.

“It’s important to do because we have a social justice mission,” Henning said. Fossil fuels divestiture by university endowments isn’t likely to starve companies from global capital, he said, but “it removes the social license to create energy through fossil fuels.”

In the 1980s, universities divested from companies doing business in South Africa, calling attention to apartheid and delegitimizing the government that endorsed it, Henning said.

Smith said a task force made up of GU’s Investment Committee and a member of the university’s Mission Committee spent about a year researching carbon divestment strategies and socially responsible investing. The task force met with students, faculty and staff and reached out to GU’s alumni for feedback.

About 4.4 percent of GU’s endowment is invested in publicly traded companies with “some form of fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” Smith said. That’s a relatively small amount, but some of the companies are mixed into larger investment funds with nonfossil fuel companies, he said.

As part of GU’s new investment strategy, the university will introduce new tools to measure current and potential endowment investments against socially responsible investing criteria.

“It’s not a hard pass-fail,” Smith said. But,“those fund managers who score poorly will be less likely to remain in the pool.”

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