Seattle University bears the name of a great city and with that name comes great responsibility. The Jesuit identity of this institution is defined by its service to the community, both local and global. From the organically maintained gardens that thrive on rainwater collected from roofs and sidewalks to the locally produced and fair-trade food available throughout our campus, sustainability is a way of life at Seattle U.
Take, for example, how last year Seattle U became the first educational institution in the state to sign the Washington Business Climate Declaration. The declaration, which President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., signed, states: “There is a clear and present need for action on climate change to protect our region’s natural assets, its vibrant communities and its growing economy. We business leaders of the Pacific Northwest endorse the Climate Declaration because we support using energy efficiently, investing in cleaner fuels, advancing renewable energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
The divestment movement is a student-led manifestation of these ideals, targeting the elimination of university investments, direct and indirect, in fossil fuels. The Sustainable Student Activity (SSA) club has always been the first to act. Through peaceful protests and organized efforts to gain attention, members of SSA have urged the administration to remove all funds it has invested in the fossil fuel industry. But they seem to have gone quiet since the new school year began.
“The biggest reason for the lull is that the student leaders that previously provided a lot of momentum, some of them have graduated,” said Michael Marsolek, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “They provided the bulk of the energy.”
Last year nearly 160 members of the Seattle U faculty signed a letter expressing their support for the students who brought this issue to the light. The letter, which detailed all the reasons they believed the school should divest, was delivered to the administration last spring. The response was two-fold.
First: Connie Kanter, Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance and Business Affairs, wrote a letter addressed to members of SSA. She expressed gratitude to them for working so hard to promote sustainable practices. She also stated that administration is not yet prepared to move forward on a feasibility study of divestment from fossil fuel companies and that administration believes there are more effective ways to address climate change.
Second: the Socially Responsible Investments Task Force, or SRI Task Force for short, was created to explore ways in which Seattle U can further its commitment to its mission in promoting social justice. The charter of the Task Force states that it “will consider issues of social responsibility in the investment policies and practices of Seattle University. It is charged with making recommendations to the Investment Committee on socially responsible investment issues related to the investments in the university’s endowment.”
“Every time one university works with their asset management company to create the funds necessary to be divested, that makes it easier for the next university to work with those funds that have already been created,” Marsolek said.
Philosophy professor Jason Wirth, along with Marsolek and associate professor J. Wesley Lauer, were on the six-member committee responsible for writing the letter. Wirth said he believes that this issue is an opportunity for Seattle U to stand up for what is right, and he applauds the administration’s response.
“Our requests were done in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation,” Wirth said. “It is our own contribution to working for the bettering of the university and we’re happy to continue to work with the university on this matter.”
Lauer hopes the upper administration will realize that sustainability is one of the most important political and social issues of our time.
“Sustainability and the way that we relate to the environment is not just an economic issue,” Lauer said. “It’s an ethical and moral issue.”
In a notice sent to faculty, staff and students earlier this year, Father Sundborg gave a detailed account of how Seattle U’s endowment funds are entrusted to us by “donors whose gifts provide much needed support for student scholarships and endowed faculty chairs and professorships.” He went on to explain that, unlike other universities whose endowment funds include direct investments in publicly traded companies, ours are invested in commingled or “pooled” funds and private equity partnerships.
“That’s part of the point,” Lauer said. “If that leads to unethical industrial development, or injustice, then that’s something that we, as an institution, should be aware of and should be actively working to avoid.”
The SRI Task Force remains a new creation. Time will tell whether its recommendations are being heard and, above all, whether the university is listening. Nonetheless it will serve as a way in which our community can work together to achieve our common goal: to create a sustainable world.
Nick may be reached at [email protected]