Student Groups Demand Divestment from Fossil Fuels


Abe Frato

Student organizations and alumni are asking the College to match its commitment to the Sustainable Infrastructure Program with a commitment to divest the endowment from fossil fuels.

Students for Energy Justice, Sunrise Movement, and a group of alumni have written a letter to the Board of Trustees requesting a pledge to divest Oberlin’s endowment from fossil fuels by 2025, the same year that Oberlin plans to achieve carbon neutrality on campus through the Sustainable Infrastructure Program. The letter, which will formally be sent next week, is an attempt to elicit a response to divestment requests, which have gone largely ignored by the board since 2014.

The letter requests that the board not only release a public statement pledging to divest, but also that the board post progress updates in January of 2024 and 2025, along with a plan to fully divest from fossil fuel holdings — including pooled investments — in any of the top 200 fossil fuel corporations by January 2025.

The push for fossil fuel divestment started in 2014, but at that point, the board rejected the student proposals for divestment and student leaders involved in the project graduated soon after. This past semester, alumni behind the 2014 proposals and others from the class of ’64 helped reestablish the movement with a new divestment committee that includes students from campus environmental organizations.

“It really is the alums who are taking a big role in this, but it’s been very, very collaborative,” College fourth-year and SEJ member RE Kukushkin said.

The letter points out Oberlin’s history of groundbreaking activism and leadership in environmental issues — such as its early commitment to carbon neutrality in 2006. The writers argue that the board’s response to this issue breaks with Oberlin tradition and goals.

“We take pride in Oberlin’s accomplishments and vision, yet we believe the lack of a clear fossil fuel divestment policy and public statement of commitment is inconsistent with Oberlin’s leadership in sustainability,” the letter stated.

In response to these concerns from students and alumni, Board of Trustee Chair Chris Canavan explained that the College is already working to achieve these goals.

“The endowment’s exposure to fossil fuels is small and shrinking,” Canavan wrote in an email to the Review. “This is deliberate. We haven’t made any new investments connected to fossil fuels for some time, and we are letting go of legacy investments as fast as we feasibly can. Our legacy exposures are mostly tied up in investments that can’t easily be liquidated overnight.”

Despite these efforts, students have still voiced criticism about the lack of transparency as to how the endowment is invested. Earlier this fall, the Student Labor Action Coalition also demanded greater transparency from the board.

Kukushkin argued that the lack of financial transparency makes it challenging to assess the extent of Oberlin’s involvement in fossil fuel investments and the speed at which Oberlin is moving away from these kinds of investments. They hope the formal call to action initiated by the letter will encourage the board to open up more about how Oberlin is involved with the fossil fuel industry.

“Right now, we don’t really know where their money is going,” Kukushkin said. “While they may not be directly invested in fossil fuel companies, they may have their holdings in banks that have stakes in fossil fuel companies. It’s important that Oberlin really stick to its mission and ethics in that way.”

In their letter, members of campus environmental organizations and alumni also reference a United Nations report from April that warns that greenhouse emissions would need to peak by 2025 to limit warming thereafter to 1.5 degrees celsius.

“Global warming exacts a universal yet profoundly unequal toll on humanity,” students and alumni wrote in their letter. “It is the young and the poor, particularly the poor of color, who first lose their futures, homes, and security. Divestment from fossil fuels means taking a moral stand for our planet, all living beings, and our future.”