On January 24th, 2017, the University of Denver joined the growing list of American universities that have voted against divestment, including but not limited to: Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Colorado. Currently, the only Colorado university to divest is Naropa University.
The voting process began on January 20th, and 4 days later an email from the Board of Trustees Chair, Doug Scrivner, and Chancellor Rebecca Chopp, was sent to the student body outlining the final decision, the reason behind it, and what steps are to be taken moving forward:
“Regarding divestment, the Board adopted the task force recommendation that divestment in fossil fuel companies, or any other industry, would not be an effective means of mitigating global warming nor would it be consistent with the endowment’s long-term purpose to provide enduring benefit to present and future students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders.”
The email later describes alternative options to divestment which are focused primarily on increasing funding to explore other sustainable steps DU can take, including devoting $5 million to a “green fund.” The university plans to focus its research on energy, food sourcing, transportation, green spaces, and the establishment of a sustainability-based curriculum. Finally, the email concludes with the promise of continued dialogue regarding divestment, although it’s uncertain whether the issue will be voted on in the future.
One of the primary reasons the Board of Trustees voted against divestment was the negative effect divestment could have on, “the endowment’s long-term purpose to provide enduring benefit to present and future students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders.” However, Divest DU’s media representative, Claire Hassler, wished to explain the impact of divestment on DU’s endowment. “I would like to address the concern that some people have that divestment would have a negative financial impact on our endowment…” says Hassler. “It’s just simply not the case… There’s no real financial reason not to do it other than the interest of fossil fuel companies.”
Dean Saitta, a Professor of Anthropology at DU, is unsurprised at the Board’s decision. “I think that everybody on the faculty realized that that would probably be the case- we understood that this was a largely symbolic action, not that that meant it was insignificant,” says Saitta.
Since divestment is a primarily symbolic step towards a fossil free United States, it would require a significant portion of American universities to divest before results could be seen. Federico Cheever, a Professor of Law at DU, expands upon the potential impact of divestment. “Divestment sends a message to the fossil fuel industry that capital will not be as easy to raise as it has been in the past…” says Cheever. “For DU, it’s a way for the university to express its solidarity with the concerns of many of its students.” 1,700 students and community members have signed Divest DU’s “Go Fossil Free” petition, and 76 faculty members signed the Faculty Open Letter which called for the cessation of all new fossil fuel investments, the formation of a plan to divest within 5 years, and reinvestments into climate solutions. Since the Board’s announcement, more names have joined the list.
Students and faculty worked hard to bring the issue before DU’s board of trustees, and the student organization, Divest DU, was one of the driving forces involved. Before the decision was released, Hassler explained the extensive process. “Last year we made a presentation to the Board of Trustees about divestment…” says Hassler. “Following that presentation the Board convened a task force to investigate divestment at the University of Denver particularly… They have come up with a report on divestment at DU which they have… already delivered to the Board of Trustees. From there the board will vote on whether or not to go forward with divestment.” In 2016, DU’s Debate Team held an event debating the issue, which was presented to the Board of Trustees. “We had to really push for quite a while to get to this point…” says Hassler. “It wasn’t until we had the support of a large part of the student body, the faculty, and the faculty senate that we were able to move forward and actually get a meeting with the entire Board of Trustees and push for this task force.”
What exactly is the effect divestment could have on the environment? The United States consumption of oil is growing, while supplies continue to dwindle. In fact, the United States reached its oil peak in 1970, 47 years ago. Despite representing less than 5% of the world population, the United States consumes roughly 25% of the world’s reserves- that’s 19.4 million barrels of oil a day. Cheever describes the potential repercussions of this continued rate of consumption. “The scientific consensus suggests that if we burned even a significant portion of the current proven reserves of oil and gas on the planet, we would emit enough greenhouse gases to melt most of both the polar and antarctic ice caps, leading to dramatic and catastrophic changes on a planet where many billions of people live within a few feet of elevation of the coastline.” says Cheever.
For Divest DU, however, the fight is far from over. Shortly after the decision was made, the student group expressed their concerns through the medium of DU’s free speech wall. The previous image, promoting the upcoming Winter Carnival, was repainted with a letter addressing Chancellor Chopp, stating:
“They said no but we won’t stop
Put your $$$ where your mouth is
The group is still just as motivated to keep pushing for divestment. “There’s no room anymore to be neutral on climate change.” says Hassler. “We need to lead on climate- our university needs to step up and be leaders, and they need to fight for our future, not the future of the fossil fuel industry.”