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Climate Change & Jesuit Higher Education: Reportback from Loyola Chicago #4

BY JAMES HUG S.JMarch 21, 2015

James Hug, S.J. attended Loyola University’s Chicago’s Climate Change Conference and offered a series of reflections before, during, and after the gathering which can be found here.

climate-changeIn my last post, I relayed the report and reflections of two student leaders at Seattle University whose student-faculty movement calling for fossil fuel divestment met initial rejection by university leadership. This blog piece features a success story.

The University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, is the first Catholic university in the U.S. to divest from fossil fuels. At the Loyola University Climate Change Conference, two leaders from the school shared their experience, Mr. George Hanley, a member of the Board of Directors who voted for divestment, and Dr. Paul Benson, the university’s acting provost. Hanley is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. He is active now in a number of investment roles oriented to “advancing transformative educational, environmental and empowerment solutions.” Benson is an internationally recognized scholar in ethics and social philosophy and served the university as departmental chair, associate dean, and Dean of Arts and Sciences before becoming interim provost.

They began by urging students interested in raising the issue of fossil fuel divestment and investment in clean alternative energy sources on their own campuses to persevere! They quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu as saying,

“We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet….

It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future.”

They noted some factors favoring efforts to get Catholic universities to divest from fossil fuels. They pointed out that universities as universities believe in and understand climate science. In addition, climate action aligns with Catholic Social Teaching and Pope Francis is calling for it.   Catholic university mission statements are often strong on social ethics, and Catholic screens for investments now exist and are commonly used.

They listed a number of important lessons learned at Dayton that will benefit other universities willing to address the issue.

  • Be ready for roadblocks – there are many misperceptions, a great deal of inertia, and powerful vested interests to be overcome.
  • Clearly define divestment targets – there are lists of the worst polluters and choosing those as initial targets of divestment efforts will make it easier to build support.
  • Assess the fossil fuel holdings in your university’s investments so you can show you know the current reality and can set realistic goals.
  • Learn more about investment performance with fossil fuel screens [the S&P 500 is the standard for measuring]. Divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in clean alternatives need not mean financial losses.
  • Consider stranded asset risk – how risky are these fossil fuel investments in the long run? Growing ecological consciousness and destructive climate patterns are fueling the “Leave them in the Ground” movement, posing real threats to their long-term profitability.
  • Explore new fossil free investment services and products in line with Catholic screens. Stress your integrity as a Catholic institution in your investments.
  • Set a realistic timetable for phasing out investments.
  • Be wary of shareholder advocacy as the panacea. That type of socially responsible investment advocacy has had no significant success in this arena.
  • Prepare your communications and public relations strategy carefully and professionally.
  • Keep the end game in mind: you need to reduce the outsized influence of corporations.
  • Above all, keep Mission Integrity in the forefront. There is no stronger argument than fidelity to your Catholic mission which embraces the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching. That mission must shape all your sustainability plans and guide your students’ and community’s future interests.

They closed their presentation by emphasizing that too often universities overlook the powerful educational mission that carefully planned and communicated divestment/reinvestment activities fulfill. These actions call attention to important issues of planetary climate change, of course, but they also offer a strong example of institutional faithfulness to religious identity in the use of all resources. This has five broad effects.

First, it deepens students’ understanding of core values and mission by illustrating what the mission of service, justice and peace and acting in solidarity with the most marginalized mean concretely.

Secondly, it can serve to expand students’ understanding of the ethical responsibility of investors. It can provide an occasion to share with students broader, mission-based practices. It can challenge undergraduate investment programs to incorporate socially responsible investment and develop valuable hands-on experience.

Thirdly, it will highlight the university-wide relevance of sustainability education for every academic discipline. It provides a valuable case study of the Catholic commitment to the virtue of practical wisdom, the congruence of reason and faith, the ideal of integrative learning.

Fourthly, divestment/reinvestment actions model for students and the full university community the imperative of ethical commitment and action on one of the most critical issues of our times.

Finally, divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in alternative clean energy sources is a crucial lesson in ethical hope. The situation of climate change is not simply overwhelming and intractable. Something significant can be done and these actions convey that lesson.

In addition, the reverse side of this coin is disturbing. Students at universities today learn about the global crises facing the human community and the global responsibility to do something about them. If they then watch the universities themselves invest their financial weight in the most destructive and irresponsible things, what can they be expected to learn? The lessons being taught seem to be lessons of hypocrisy and ultimately despair at a time when everyone needs lessons in ethical and ecological hope.

In what should be an enticing incentive to university administrators, Hanley and Benson noted that faculty and student recruitment at the University of Dayton have both benefited in measurable ways from the university’s actions on fossil fuels. They seemed delighted, in puckish good humor, to leave the audience with a provocative question:

“Are the Marianists really that much more intelligent and committed than the Jesuits?”

I am sincerely hoping that the students, faculty, and administrators of the 28 U.S. Jesuit universities will rise to this challenge.


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