BY ISN STAFF | July 28, 2023
As of June 30, 2023, Seattle University (SU) has withdrawn all investments in fossil fuel companies from its endowment portfolio, becoming the first university in Washington state and the first Catholic, Jesuit university in the country to fulfill their commitment to divest from fossil fuels. SU is now charting a new course of socially conscious investing.
SU is a leader in the divestment and sustainability movements globally and nationally. In 2018, SU became the first Jesuit university in the country to pledge 100 percent withdrawal from publicly traded fossil fuel investments. Since then, six other Jesuit universities followed SU’s lead and made some level of commitment to divest, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
Divestment is a process of withdrawing investments from companies that hold fossil fuel reserves like coal, oil and natural gas. The money SU uses to invest—its endowment, made up of donations to the university—was valued as of June at $285 million. Proceeds from the investments pay for things like student scholarships.
When the Board of Trustees voted to approve the five-year plan of pulling SU dollars out of those fossil fuel investments, the endowment was valued at about $230 million. About $13.6 million, or 6.7 percent of the endowment, consisted of companies with fossil fuel reserves. Now, zero percent of the marketable portion of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels.
Aside from being a substantive step toward confronting the climate crisis, fossil fuel divestment aligns with the university’s commitment to sustainability and environmental justice, and acknowledging and confronting the disproportionate exposure of poor communities and people of color to environmental hazards and health burdens.
SU has led the way in environmental stewardship and initiatives that aim to combat climate change and improve the planet for all. It was the first university in the Pacific Northwest to earn the title of Fair Trade Designated University; SU’s urban campus is designated a “wildlife habitat” and “tree campus”; and the grounds are 100 percent organically maintained—meaning free of pesticides—and include many edible gardens. In another effort led by students, SU was the first school in the state to remove single-use bottled water on campus.
“It’s all too tempting to become pessimistic about climate change,” says Seattle University president Eduardo Peñalver. “But, as a Jesuit university, we are called to accompany our students toward a hope-filled future and to take actions to help bring that future into being. Even while we acknowledge the reality of the climate challenges we are confronting, I am very proud of Seattle University’s divestment effort, a concrete and thoughtful accomplishment that serves as an example for others.”
Aoife Kennedy, ‘25, president of Sustainable Student Action (SSA), the SU student group that started the push for divestment in 2012, says she is moved by what students who came before her accomplished.
“Divestment at SU was a difficult and lengthy process,” Kennedy says. “But the many inspiring students who were a part of this campaign serve as a powerful reminder of our collective influence and strength.”
Ames Fowler, ’15, one of the students to begin the push to divest in 2012, says divestment isn’t the solution for climate change, but it helps shape how the economy works.
“It’s not flashy,” he says. “It doesn’t fix the issue. It doesn’t stop the [Great Barrier] coral reef from bleaching, but we have to change the scaffolding of our economy if we want a different world. And this is a rearranging of the scaffolding of our economy in a small, but critical, way.”
In announcing the Board of Trustees decision, Father Sundborg said that as a Jesuit and Catholic university, SU has a special obligation to address the unfolding climate crisis. He emphasized Pope Francis’ call to see the “grave urgency” of the moment.
“We join with others also at the forefront of the growing divestment movement and hope our action encourages more to do the same,” said Fr. Sundborg. “Together, we can amplify our collective voice and accelerate the transition to clean, fossil-free energy sources.”