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Monday, February 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘We live on a finite planet’: Gonzaga students hold sit-in to push university to divest from fossil fuel industry

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 13, 2020

Gonzaga University students gather Thursday outside the Hemmingson Center  during national day of action for fossil fuel divenstment. The group, Fossil Free Gonzaga, is advocating for the school to move its endowment away from the fossil fuel industry. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga University students gather Thursday outside the Hemmingson Center during national day of action for fossil fuel divenstment. The group, Fossil Free Gonzaga, is advocating for the school to move its endowment away from the fossil fuel industry. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A group of students donned bright orange, held up signs and chanted “make my degree fossil-free” during a “sit-in” for National Divestment Day on Thursday.

Fossil Free Gonzaga, a student group that advocates for the university to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry, put on the event.

Numerous universities have already committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry, including the University of California system, half of the universities in the United Kingdom and Georgetown University, which, like Gonzaga, is Jesuit.

“We’re a Jesuit university. Our mission statement talks about a care for the planet, talks about a care for the poor and vulnerable,” said Will Holland, Fossil Free Gonzaga president. “By funding this industry, we are directly negating any kind of statement or mission we can have on that issue.”

The club started five years ago, and the university analyzed how much of Gonzaga’s endowment was invested in the fossil fuel industry in 2016.

In 2017, that analysis showed that 4.4%, or $3.8 million, of the university’s portfolio is in fossil fuel-related stocks. The faculty senate and the Gonzaga Student Body Association voted in favor of a Fossil Fuel Divestment resolution.

“All faculty just are looking for ways to lift up the voices of young people,” said Brian G. Henning, Fossil Free Gonzaga faculty adviser. “This movement is really having moral clarity, in part, because young people are reminding us that it’s their future that’s at stake.”

The university’s Environmental, Social and Governance Task Force made recommendations to the Investment Committee in the summer of 2017, but those recommendations did not include divestment.

“They didn’t ever respond directly to the question of divestment. They looked at their socially responsible investing policy,” Henning said. “The only new action was to try and take a small pot of money and start doing what’s called impactful investing.”

On its website, Gonzaga says divestment was “taken very seriously by University leadership” but that investing in companies implementing ways to reduce carbon emissions was more impactful.

After going through all the available administrative channels, students decided a demonstration was a good next step, Henning said.

“The students are rightly asking them to address the issue at hand, which is seeking to profit from the creation of climate change.” Henning said.

Holland argued that divesting would not only adhere to the school’s principles but would be financially responsible.

“This industry is going to die in the next 10 years as we realize how horrible it is and these stocks don’t perform well anymore,” Holland said. “By taking this out of our portfolio and going somewhere else, we think that we can not only withstand our financial health as an institution but also stand for something that aligns with our mission and values as a school.”

In an email Thursday, Gonzaga spokesman Mary Joan Hahn said the investment committee “continues to monitor ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) considerations and listen to input from the campus community and others.”

“Gonzaga is confident in its current investment strategy,” Hahn said.

Thursday’s demonstration was one of many nationwide for Fossil Fuel Divestment Day, led by DivestEd.

At Gonzaga, about 45 students attended, along with a handful of faculty members and community organizers from 350 Spokane, a local group working to solve climate change.

Lamont Worden, 72, showed up on campus in a Gonzaga hoodie holding a sign.

“I’m probably three times the age of some of these kids,” Worden said.

Worden is an organizer for 350 Spokane. After hearing about the Gonzaga event, Worden said it was important to show up.

These students are “fixing our generation’s stupidity,” Worden said.

For sophomore Taylor Bentley, 19, the event was about education.

This is about “educating people in a useful way,” Bentley said. “I think if there’s something we can do about it we should.”

Bentley said a few students came and joined the protest and others asked questions.

Junior Kevin Fagan isn’t a member of Fossil Free Gonzaga but has friends who are. He was at the demonstration Thursday to “show that our generation thinks these are important issues.”

“We live on a finite planet and we need to convey that,” Fagan said.

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