Fossil Fuel Divestment at OSU: A Brief History

Students march on OSU campus, demanding divestment from fossil fuels.

Students march on OSU campus, demanding divestment from fossil fuels.

For nearly 3 years, I have worked with faculty, students and community members on fossil fuel divestment at Oregon State University, asking the Foundation (who manages OSU’s half-billion dollar endowment and manages much of the university’s messaging as an independent entity) to stop investing our endowment in the fossil fuel industry. In fall 2013, the Faculty Senate at OSU passed a resolution demanding the Foundation divest from fossil fuel investments. In winter 2014, the Student Senate passed a resolution demanding the same. After months of trying to get a meeting with the OSU Foundation, in spring 2014, two Foundation Trustees and several staff members met with a half-dozen students and faculty to discuss the possibility of divestment.


Students deliver a Christmas gift of coal to the Foundation.

The meeting was a non-starter. One of the Trustees, Greg Merten, was a climate-change denier. Not an anthropomorphic climate change denier, but a flat-out, belligerent climate change is not happening clinger-onto. On the one hand, this was disrespectful. Here, a group of people were hoping for an honest conversation about the actions we can take to support mitigating climate disaster only to have an instrument of our own university send someone who wouldn’t let the conversation even start to discuss supportive actions because there is no need to do anything in response to something that is not happening. On the other hand, this was down-right embarrassing. For a university, where so much climate research is done, where so many of the confirmations and consequences of climate change have been discovered, to have their messaging being managed by someone who doesn’t believe in the very science that comes from our institution is … well, frankly unsurprising. After all, Greg Merten is wealthy.

Needless to say, our request for divestment was denied, citing ‘fiduciary’ responsibility. Dollars ahead of ethics. Well done, Foundation.

A simulated oil spill on campus.

A simulated oil spill on campus.

Fast forward two years. After a hottest year on record, renewed student interest, two fun protests on campus, and a student referendum in which 78% of students demanded fossil fuel divestment, members of the OSU Divest student group were recently graced with another meeting with the Foundation to revisit the issue of divestment. Only two students from the OSU Divest student group were intended to meet with two trustees and several employees of the Foundation. In a show of strong solidarity, another 10 or so students and faculty, members of Allied Students for Another Politics! and Rising Tide Corvallis, also attended the meeting. The Foundation was clearly caught off guard, quickly pulling more chairs up to the table and more mugs to the coffee stand.

Despite a lack of preparation time, the students at the meeting did an amazing job of holding their ground, not backing down to a weaker proposal, not letting falsehoods be perpetrated by Foundation trustees and staff. Compared to the meeting in 2014, the Foundation seemed more prepared to listen, although one trustee was, while not an outright climate denier like Greg Merten, in favor of pointing a blaming finger at the global south for future emissions.

Molly Brown, a director at the Foundation, made reference to those contacting the Foundation asking them to not divest. Immediately before our 2014 meeting, the Foundation met with a group of unnamed people who, reportedly, gave arguments for not divesting. Molly Brown also referenced people opposed to divestment who had contacted the Foundation in the last two years. I don’t doubt that this has happened. When I first got involved in fossil fuel divestment, I received a couple of nasty emails from College of Engineering faculty members (a nerve-racking experience for my pre-tenure self). It took but two seconds to discover that these same faculty members enjoy direct funding from the fossil fuel industry for their research and summer salaries. Since divestment has been a topic at OSU, there have been three letters in the alumni magazine opposing divestment by two people (and 4 letters in favor, by 4 different people); a few clicks on a search engine uncovered that divestment opponents have direct financial conflicts-of-interest with the fossil fuel industry: Barry McElmurry is now retired from Fluor Daniel Inc (oil & gas infrastructure construction company) and Mike Moehnke is a district manager of Columbia Steel (“well-known in surface coal mining for its dragline chain”). I’m sure that all those who are vocally opposed don’t have such egregious conflicts of interests — surely some of them are just clinging desperately to neo-liberal ideology so they can maintain their excessive lifestyles without guilt.

A big point to fight against, for me, is the fact that the Foundation is placing the back-door, face-less anti-voices on (at best) an equal or (more likely) a higher footing than our organized, public movement of thousands of faculty, staff, students and community members who have voiced their opinion through petitions, letters, protests, referendum, and resolutions. Again, I am not surprised. The anti voices are telling the Foundation what they want to hear. They also probably have more money.

In the meantime, the fight continues. We are currently collecting faculty and staff signatures on an open letter to the foundation demanding divestment (soon to be released to the public); we currently have nearly 100 signatures with many from the researchers whose work tells us how big a disaster climate change is bringing.

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