Seattle University First in the State to Divest from Fossil Fuels

University fulfills its commitment to fully divest, in line with its environmental leadership.

Seattle University scrubbed its endowment portfolio of fossil fuel investments as of June 30, becoming the first university in Washington state and the first Jesuit Catholic university in the country to fulfill this commitment of divestment, while charting a new course of socially conscious investing.

SU is a leader in the divestment and sustainability movements globally and nationally. In 2018, SU became the first Jesuit university in the country to pledge 100 percent withdrawal from publicly traded fossil fuel investments. According to the university’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, SU is also the first Jesuit university in the world to pledge to fully remove its money from investments in fossil fuels. 

Though the university is at the end of the five-year divestment process, it is just one part of Seattle University’s ongoing efforts toward building a sustainable community that supports human and ecological health, social justice and economic well-being through Socially Responsible Investing.

A slide detailing what divestment is

Aside from being a substantive step toward confronting the climate crisis, fossil fuel divestment aligns with the university’s commitment to sustainability and environmental justice, tenets underscored by SU’s Reigniting Our Strategic Directions and acknowledging and confronting the disproportionate exposure of poor communities and people of color to environmental hazards and health burdens.

SU has led the way in environmental stewardship and initiatives that aim to combat climate change and improve the planet for all. It was the first university in the Pacific Northwest to earn the title of Fair Trade Designated University, our urban campus is designated a “wildlife habitat” and “tree campus” and the grounds are 100 percent organically maintained—that means free of pesticides—and include many edible gardens. And, in another effort led by students, SU was the first school in the state to remove single-use bottled water on campus.

“It’s all too tempting to become pessimistic about climate change,” says Seattle University President Eduardo Peñalver. “But, as a Jesuit university, we are called to accompany our students toward a hope-filled future and to take actions to help bring that future into being. Even while we acknowledge the reality of the climate challenges we are confronting, I am very proud of Seattle University’s divestment effort, a concrete and thoughtful accomplishment that serves as an example for others.”

A graphic showing how we compare to others regarding divestment

Aoife Kennedy, ‘25, president of Sustainable Student Action (SSA), the SU student group that started the push for divestment in 2012, says she is moved by what students who came before her accomplished.

“Divestment at SU was a difficult and lengthy process,” Kennedy says. “But the many inspiring students who were a part of this campaign serve as a powerful reminder of our collective influence and strength.”

What is Divestment?
Divestment is a process of withdrawing investments from companies that hold fossil fuel reserves like coal, oil and natural gas. The money SU uses to invest—its endowment, made up of donations to the university—was valued as of June at $285 million. Proceeds from the investments pay for things like student scholarships.

When the Board of Trustees voted to approve the five-year plan of pulling SU dollars out of those fossil fuel investments, the endowment was valued at about $230 million.

To give some context to the scope of SU’s divestment, in 2017, about $13.6 million, or 6.7 percent of the endowment, consisted of companies with fossil fuel reserves. Now, zero percent of the marketable portion of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels.

A graphic showing economic impact of divestment

Students Push for Move
“It really started with student initiative,” says Joseph Gaffney, ’67, who at the time was a member of the Board of Trustees and chair of the Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) working group, formed by former SU President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., to investigate divesting.

Ames Fowler, ’15, one of the students to begin the push to divest in 2012, says divestment isn’t the solution for climate change, but it helps shape how the economy works.

“It’s not flashy,” he says. “It doesn’t fix the issue. It doesn’t stop the great coral reef from bleaching, but we have to change the scaffolding of our economy if we want a different world. And this is a rearranging of the scaffolding of our economy in a small, but critical, way.”

Call to Action
Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” calls for action on the climate crisis and “care for our common home,” praising work like that of the SU students whose persistence was credited for ultimately persuading university leaders to back away from fossil fuel investments.

In announcing the Board of Trustees decision, Father Sundborg said that as a Jesuit and Catholic university, SU has a special obligation to address the unfolding climate crisis. He emphasized Pope Francis’ call to see the “grave urgency” of the moment.

“We join with others also at the forefront of the growing divestment movement and hope our action encourages more to do the same,” said Fr. Sundborg. “Together, we can amplify our collective voice and accelerate the transition to clean, fossil-free energy sources.”

Since SU’s announcement in 2018, six other Jesuit universities made some level of commitment to divest, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

In addition to leading the way for Jesuit universities, SU has shown the path forward for other institutions of higher education in the state. Last year, the University of Washington committed to a deadline of 2027 to exit from direct fossil fuel investments.

In June 2022, the board took the step of instituting a requirement that endowment investments include an evaluation for the environmental, social and governance (ESG) impacts, in addition to the customary criteria such as investment performance and diversification.

“This directive is becoming more common in universities’ endowment investment practices,” says Bret Myers, Director of Treasury and Risk Management in SU’s Office of Finance, who added that these steps are also in line with key priorities the university has set for itself as part of the Laudato Si’ Action Plan (LSAP).

One of the LSAP pillars is “Ecological Economics,” acknowledging that “the economy is a sub-system of human society, which itself is embedded within the biosphere—our common home.” This goal connects directly to decisions around future investments, such as divesting from fossil fuels and promoting ethical investments.

Check out the fall edition of Seattle University Magazine for a more comprehensive look inside Seattle University’s commitment to divestment from fossil fuels and its leadership in sustainability. 

Written by Andrew Binion

Wednesday, July 12, 2023