Vote no on fossil fuel divestment referendum

When students open their Student Association ballots this week, they will be asked whether the Board of Trustees should disclose GW’s investments in fossil fuel companies and remove them from the endowment. On this referendum, students should vote no.


In theory, divestment from fossil fuels is a fantastic idea. Any measure that contributes to the collapse of fossil fuel companies deserves support, and the gravity of climate change cannot be underestimated.


But the problem with this bill is that it conflates two issues that should actually be addressed in two parts: disclosure and divestment.


Right now, we don’t have the information to know how much of our endowment is at risk if we divest. It could be a lot, or it could be marginal. But it’s unwise to move forward blindly without knowing the ramifications.


First, GW should be asked to disclose whether it invests in fossil fuels and, if so, how much. Then, with that new information, the University – together with input and pressure from students – could make informed decisions about exactly how and when fossil fuel divestments should take place.


Students are starting campaigns for divestment across the country at schools like Stanford and Harvard universities, as well as at our peer schools, Northwestern and American universities. We’re proud of our fellow GW students for making their voices heard, too. We want our University to be eco-friendly, and we commend its numerous sustainability measures so far.


Still, it’s not as cut and dry as we might wish. In an ideal world, the University could immediately cut any ties with fossil fuel companies it might have. But those investments are part of the endowment, which underwrites financial aid and faculty hires, serving as GW’s financial foundation.


Enormous initiatives like divestment are too important to do hastily – any proposal we make to administrators has to be bulletproof. Divestment is already a great idea, and one that the University should think is worth considering. But right now, the student body knows virtually nothing about the possible consequences of divestment, meaning it’s impossible to craft the right measure within a reasonable timeline.


Proposals have been brought to administrators without enough research in the past. The SA called for an expansion of student space on campus, only to be told by knowledgeable University officials that many of the recommendations were financially impractical.


Provost Steven Lerman and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz issued a letter then in response to an SA report, shooting down one by one the student executives’ recommendations for reasons of space, funding, security, energy and housekeeping.


It was a blow to then-president Ashwin Narla, who had largely focused on student space in his campaign, and the issue has since remained outside the realm of possibility. That’s because students took on the issue blindly, without enough information to make their ideas a reality.


We need to learn from those mistakes. When students ask for changes that are clear, specific and well thought-out, GW has a harder time denying those requests.


That's not to say that Fossil Free GW, the organization that pushed a bill for the referendum through the SA, hasn’t done commendable work. The group isn’t to blame for the University’s unwillingness to be more transparent, especially when it comes to finances. Fossil Free GW has done the best it can with what it’s been given, and it hasn’t been given much.


Students should continue supporting Fossil Free GW in its future initiatives, whatever they may be, and remember that GW is at fault when it comes to divestment.


Before the student body can begin having meaningful conversations about divestment, GW needs to disclose its fossil fuel investments. At the end of the day, we can’t support a bill that might have unintended consequences, no matter how admirable the intentions may be.


Vote no on the divestment referendum Wednesday or Thursday.


The Hatchet's editorial board for endorsements included opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr, contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, managing director Justin Peligri, sports editor Nora Princiotti, design editor Sophie McTear, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design assistant Samantha LaFrance.