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The Story of Divesting at Humboldt State University

 Guest post from Annette J. Penny, Humboldt State University Student

Over a year ago, we went to HSU‘s Advancement Foundation to ask them to Divest HSU’s endowment, our investment portfolio, from the fossil fuel industry. At first we received a stern “no”,  and were more than a little shocked. How is it possible to say no to science, or inhumanity and destruction, or to the very students for whose studies you hold a “fiduciary responsibility”? But after a year and a half of dialogue between students and Advancement Foundation members, HSU has finally committed to taking steps that will allow the process of divestment to commence! Here is this story of making divestment happen at HSU.

When most people hear “Humboldt State University,” they tend to think of things that are green: old growth forests, weed, and most importantly, sustainability. In fact, Humboldt State University is so closely tied to things that are green, that our school mascot bleeds green and gold; and a group of concerned students in 1987 started the green “Graduation Pledge” in which students “pledge to thoroughly investigate and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job opportunity that [they] consider.”

Following suit 20-some years later, the school’s Advancement Foundation Board, in order to stay true to their fiduciary responsibility to the students, reduced their financial risk by removing direct investments from virtually all “concerning sectors” in the financial world. This meant that roughly a decade ago HSU removed any stocks and bonds that they held from of the fossil fuel industry, tobacco, arms, and anything else that didn’t fall into “Socially and Responsible Investing” criteria. Today, even many schools that are celebrating their divestment commitments have mostly only removed specific stocks or bonds in the industry and still hold indirect investments, such as mutual funds, in the fossil fuel industry.

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The thing about this industry is that it’s around for a reason. And while we, in the 21st century, have every right to enjoy our laptops and interwebs and cameras and lights that require fossil fuel energy, it’s important for us to remember that anything worth doing is worth doing right. In haphazardly extracting finite resources from the Earth in unnecessarily destructive ways, we are only harming ourselves in the end. I feel silly even having to state it, but living in an unhealthy environment inevitably leads to an unhealthy person.

So we pushed forward, and waited for the next Advancement Foundation meeting six months later. At this meeting, we were greeted with an enthusiastic “Socially and Environmentally Responsibly Offset and Mitigation Policy” (SEROP). This policy was an exciting step in the right direction, but it didn’t actually move more money out of the fossil fuel industry. In fact, the pledge portrayed existing investments in Schatz Energy Research Center and the donated Schatz Tree Farm and acted like they were a new and exciting commitments to counter fossil fuel investments. I knew that we were having an impact – but  it seemed like more of a brush off meant to shut us up than to make any actual progress.

Thus, we made the choice to keep fighting. We did so because ensuring a healthy future for ourselves, our children, and the other inhabitants of the world is worth the message that we would be sending the world. And it is most definitely worth doing right.

We persevered onward, and here we are in late 2014. We approached the Advancement Foundation once again in October and they were kind enough to set aside the entire first half of the meeting for this very important discussion of how to invest the money that ensures that our great university continues to thrive. We talked, and discussed, and they opened the floor to us many times. We didn’t have to chain ourselves to any furniture, and they did everything they could to stay true to their responsibilities while having a sensible discussion with us regarding the ethical implications of what our money is really saying to the world today. Finally, after much discussion, some frustration, and concessions on both ends, we came to agree on some key next steps that bring Humboldt even closer to fully divesting from Fossil Fuels:

  1. To create a new SEROP fund in which donors can rest assured knowing their donation is being invested only in portfolios that align with their own personal Environmental and Social Governance Criteria views.
  2. To move 10% of the existing $26 million portfolio (so $2.6 million) within 12 months of SEROP fund implementation into funds guaranteed to not have holdings in any of our concerning sectors. (This also bares clarifying that HSU’s definition of “concerning sectors” was expanded to include all energy and utility stocks rather than just fossil fuels in order to steer clear of any unintentional fossil fuel investments. Under this definition, 7.5% of HSU’s portfolio is invested in concerning sectors.)
  3. To create a SEROP Investment Challenge which involved massive fundraising for increasing divestment capacity. For every $500,000 that is raised into the SEROP fund, another 10% will be moved. And once we’ve raised $5 million, HSU may be able to go completely Fossil Free!

After everything in the past year and a half, it is incredible that we have come as far as we have, but we we are not done. We can never allow ourselves to become complacent in the “has done,” and must always continue to move forward into the “must do”. Every day I am reminded how lucky I am to attend the university that Divested “before it was cool”, but I fear the day that my school becomes the university that simply “Divested before it was cool”.

It is essential now that we remain strong and hold HSU accountable to the commitments they have made by working together and making the student voice strong at HSU. Where our investments go and what they say affects all of us, and it is up to us to ensure that they reflect our values.

So why did I push so hard? Because prioritizing the people and planet over profits is always the right thing to do. Because “Green Funds” are up and coming, allowing for quick growth in fund diversity. And because I can’t stand the thought of one day telling my daughter that I didn’t do everything I could to keep the planet healthy and alive for her to enjoy like we are lucky enough to do today. And so we Divest today, for rest of humanity.