JMU may become the first public university in the South to divest from fossil fuels

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Frank Marazzo, Rosie Lynch

On Friday February 12, Divest JMU student activists presented their proposal to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuels before the Investment Committee of the Board of Directors to the JMU Foundation. This was a momentous step in their two year long campaign, as the men and women at this meeting form the decisionmaking body directly responsible for setting the investment strategy of the university’s approximately 80 million dollar endowment. After their presentation, Divest JMU members were given a 30 to 60 day timeline for the Investment Committee to vote on whether they would pursue a feasibility study, to be conducted by an outside advisory firm, to determine the potential costs and consequences of divesting the endowment.

Everything Divest JMU has been campaigning for rests on this upcoming vote, because the JMU Foundation would never decide to adopt fossil fuel divestment without conducting an in-depth feasibility study on account of its fiduciary responsibility to sustain and grow our endowment for the benefit of the university. Divest JMU members are grateful that the Foundation’s Board of Directors have taken steps to work closely with our campaign by inviting us to formally present our proposal and planning to vote on pursuing a feasibility study in a timely fashion. To us, this is evidence that JMU officials are eager to respond to the ethical imperative of taking a stand for social justice, even when that choice might not be the most lucrative one.

The Divest JMU campaign is about standing with and defending those segments of our society most affected–and threatened–by climate change. Beyond your typical brand of tree-hugging environmentalism, fossil fuel divestment is firmly rooted in social justice. It aims to dismantle our current oppressive socioeconomic structure that exploits people, especially some of the  most marginalized communities, and threatens human health and security. Climate change is not just a future threat, but an ongoing process that is already causing economic loss and health consequences around the world. As one of its primary drivers, fossil fuel extraction is at the heart of this issue, while also responsible for human health and environmental damages all on its own. We propose that JMU–as well as other large institutions– divest from this dirty and irresponsible industry to no longer partake in its profit earnings and thereby signal to the rest of the world that these companies no longer hold the social license they once did to continue business as usual in the face of so much loss.

It’s not as if our proposal to take away the small percentage of our endowment (we’ve heard estimates of 3-4% in the past) that has exposure to the dirty energy and invest it somewhere else will make the fossil fuel industry come toppling down. Rather, morality is at the basis of our argument. Fossil fuel extraction and the resulting climate change is causing suffering now, and that suffering will only worsen if we do not make a concerted effort to transform industry and society at large. If we cannot see a place for fossil fuel extraction in the near future, how can we justify investing in its ongoing development and expansion? As an institution of higher learning aiming to be the model for the engaged university–engaged with ideas and the world–how can JMU continue to support the devastation caused by the fossil fuel industry?

The goal of divestment is to take a stand on the right side of history and encourage other institutions to do the same. If Divest JMU succeeds in their mission, JMU will be the first public university in the south to officially divest from fossil fuels! This will place our university in the spotlight as a leader on this issue on a national stage and pave the way for society to take a stand against the major agents of climate change. When Divest JMU activists Stephanie Wolf and Cliff Landess presented before the Board of Directors on February 12th, they ushered in a new era for our campaign in which key decision makers are finally taking direct steps forward toward fossil fuel divestment. We are confident that in 30-60 days, we will have a reassuring response from the Foundation’s Board of Visitors because they recognize all that is at stake in this issue and the important role that JMU can play through its influence in mitigating the worst of climate scientists’ predictions.

The fight for social justice isn’t over just yet, and if you’d like to get involved you can follow our campaign at https://www.facebook.com/DivestJMU/. We warmly welcome all student, faculty, staff, alumni and community support for our cause. While waiting to hear back from the JMU Foundation, Divest JMU eagerly looks forward to Thursday, February 25th when the JMU Faculty Senate will vote on a resolution in support of our campaign efforts.

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