Fossil fuel divestment group finds University officials ‘receptive’

Dec. 20, 2012, 12:31 p.m.

Joining a nationwide movement currently involving 192 colleges, a group of Stanford students recently kicked off a fossil fuel divestment campaign on campus, which aims to persuade the school endowment fund to rid its investment portfolio of oil, coal and gas stocks within the next five years.

Within the last three weeks, the campaign has presented a petition endorsed by over 30 students in the core organizing team to University President John Hennessy. The core team gathers most of its support from environmental-oriented student groups on campus, such as the Green Living Council and Students for a Sustainable Stanford.

The campaign is in part inspired by a grass-roots organization,’s Do The Math tour. Writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben and other organization members toured 21 U.S. cities urging students to start local divestment campaigns that target fossil fuel companies.

Since its kickoff on Nov. 7 in Seattle, the tour has inspired a nationwide environmental initiative on college campuses. Sophie Harrison ’16 was among the audience when McKibben made the speech in Palo Alto on Nov. 10.

“It’s so exciting and inspiring to see what is happening in other campuses, and I think Stanford should be a part of it,” Harrison said.

Following the talk, the students held their first meeting discussing what a divestment movement would look like at Stanford. Students who joined the group said that Stanford, with its rich innovation history and past record of green initiatives, should be a role model in sustainable investment by divesting from companies in the fossil fuel industry.

“Given that we are in Silicon Valley and our investment in technology throughout our history, I have no doubt that we are going to be able to work towards that goal,” said Sasha Brownsberger ’14, a member of the movement organizing team and co-president of the Green Living Council.

While the campaign is still in its launching stage, it is seeking attention from students. Three students wrote an op-ed for The Daily, calling for the school administration’s attention to “set an example by withdrawing its support for an industry that is crippling our planet” (“Why Stanford should divest from fossil fuels,” Dec. 4, 2012).

“It’s really cool to start to talk to students about it,” Harrison said. “I have people whom I’ve never met sending me email saying that I’ve heard about this divestment movement’s evolvement on the campus, and I hope to be part of it.”

The campaign has gained support from the environmental groups on campus but remains independent.

“At current stance, until things become more formalized, we will probably better serve by maintaining focus on our traditional approach to sustainability and helping out with the new divestment campaign on a person by person basis,” Brownsberger said.

Student organizers met with Senior Assistant to the President Jeff Wachtel to discuss their concerns.

“[University officials] don’t seem fully on board yet, but they seem receptive,” Harrison said. “We met with [Wachtel], and we delivered our letter. We had an informal meeting to present our letter and our intentions. They even suggested to us how we can move forward in the process”

But like many other campus campaigns, the divestment movement is having problems with student outreach.

“The timing of the campaign is unfortunate,” Brownsberger said. “It is towards the end of the term and it is very difficult to get things done. However, we have made some progress and we are going to pick up momentum at the beginning of next year, which is going to make things much easier.”

The group is seeking wider support from both the administration and the student population, calling for non-environmental groups to join the campaign.

“Climate change is an issue that transcends student group interest,” Harrison said. ‘We hope to get support from other student groups to get beyond the boundary of traditional environmental campaigns.”

The last Stanford University divestment on ethical grounds was in 2005, from four companies operating in Sudan.

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Sophie Harrison ’16 as saying, “We met with [Wachtel], and we delivered our letter. We had a formal meeting to present our letter and our attentions.” In fact, Harrison said, “We met with [Wachtel], and we delivered our letter. We had an informal meeting to present our letter and our intentions.” The Daily regrets the error.

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