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Friday, May 14, 2021

Guest editorial: Divest Now, Do the Right Thing

Then sophomore Amy McDowell leads students during a divestment rally in Red Square on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Mcdowell, who was majoring in urban development and planning, chanted through the march “Divest now Western.” // Photo by Alex Powell

Co-authored and submitted by James Loucky of the anthropolgy department, Jill MacIntyre Witt of the environmental studies and health and human development departments, Peter Sakura of the language & culture programs and the Western Students for Renewable Energy

Western Washington University lies in an unparalleled location — on the shores of the spectacular Salish Sea, below the Cascades and within the traditional territory of indigenous peoples who have lived here since time immemorial. Yet we also see in heartbreaking accounts of recent deaths of resident orca whales that the sea and its denizens are seriously endangered — including the threat of increasing oil tanker traffic. We see shrinking glaciers whenever we look at the mountains. And we look with gratitude to our Lummi neighbors for their leadership in environmental stewardship.

Why, then, is Western not among the U.S. universities that have formally committed to divesting from fossil fuels? They include Oregon State, Seattle University, Lewis and Clark, Pitzer, University of Hawaii and the University of Maryland, among others nationwide. And how can this be so, when everywhere we see evidence that worst-case climate change scenarios are coming true, and that the window for effective response is closing quickly?

Several arguments may be the reasons why Western is not moving more swiftly away from investments in climate-damaging endeavors. One is that fiduciary responsibility requires maximizing returns on endowment investments. While investing in the energy sector for diversification, growth and income is standard practice, investing in harmful and inherently risky commodities exposes that endowment to unnecessary peril. Evidence from performance analyses of portfolios reveals that reinvestment in responsible endeavors does not reduce returns. Public institutions especially need transparency and money managers who provide fossil-free and sustainable investing options.

A second rationale is that divestment would politicize financial decisions, yet the reality is that no investment is apolitical. Investing responsibly yields powerful possibilities to positively influence change. So, why are we not moving in a direction that most benefits earth and life itself?

Living well on earth and with each other involves intricate interweaving of social, economic and ethical practices and principles that ultimately are political in nature.

Third, divestment has been characterized as being grounded in stigmatization. In fact, it is aligned with growing awareness and agreement about the serious state of the world. The wider public, as well as shareholders and leaders in numerous enterprises, are part of a unison of people across the country and worldwide who recognize we cannot continue business as usual. For us to not take a stand is to choose the status quo.

Institutional inertia is common. Universities are notoriously slow to change, particularly when more than incremental changes are needed. Western isn’t immune to these tendencies. Yet, today, nearly 1,000 institutions worldwide have divested over $6 trillion. They include universities, faith-based institutions, foundations and even cities, states and countries that have committed publicly to move promptly toward a sustainable model of investing called for by the need to address the climate crisis.

Western’s motto “Active Minds, Changing Lives,” affirms that universities can be powerful change agents. Our fundamental responsibility is to ensure that teaching, research and outreach address the pressing issues of our time. Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity. It is not simply a single issue among many. As planet and posterity cry out for action, a university’s priorities and investment decisions can and must accord with its mission and its potential. Growth, commoditization and overconsumption are forces to be challenged rather than reinforced, even implicitly. A shift in investments would further ensure our reputation and role as an environmental leader, something that will, in turn, be reflected in Western’s attractiveness for potential students and new faculty — not to mention Sierra Club and other school rankings. It will also increase donor support for scholarships.

Students have voted overwhelmingly to divest from fossil fuels. Over 500 faculty and staff members have called on Western Washington University to do this as well. Divestment means screening out fossil fuels and reinvesting through instruments and money managers with abilities to bring investments into greatest harmony with one’s values. By investing in the future, Western’s president and the Western Foundation will encourage synergies and solutions, while also emulating the advice of Martin Luther King Jr., that “it is always the right time to do the right thing.”

To learn more or get involved:

WWU Students for Renewable Energy: westernsre@gmail.com

WWU Faculty/Staff: facultystaffdivest@gmail.com

WWU Alumni: westernalumnidivest@gmail.com

Guest editorials are approved by the editorial board, but do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Western Front staff.

If you would like to submit an editorial or letter to the editor, email us at: westernfrontonline@gmail.com


  1. If you want to see change on any of these issues, you need to look to new leadership. Administrators that, “want to have a presence at the Waterfront” are linked with the old guard corporate Democrats/Republicans that run Bellingham. All of their solutions are old and bad. You need to look past mottos and to their actions. While leaders will say they care about social issues, what actions have they taken? For example, I am waiting for Western to open up land for the homeless to use. Certainly you can provide some food, land, and some bathrooms somewhere on campus. Instead, your leaders have stood by while the police run homeless people down and your mayor/council let them freeze to death on the streets. They continue to do this while dumping $130 million into the idiotic Waterfront project, giving $1 million to AT&T in corporate welfare, and $3 million in a ransom to the Trillum corporation. This is more than enough money to help Western build new housing and lower costs for other Bellinghammers. All of this housing could have electric car charging and be powered by renewable energy. That’s literally how much they spent on “other things” that don’t work. So how do you divest? Well a lot of it comes down to sharing. Walk, bike, and carpool more. Share your internet connections, media, etc. There are many solutions, but in the end you need new leadership and they need to do more than, “talk pretty.” If they owned illegal ADUs/DADUs before the ordinance was passed, and voted in their own favor to pass it, like at least 2 of the council members did, then regardless of what they say don’t vote for them again. If WWUs president doesn’t start installing solar panels like it’s going out of style by Hanukah, and start building student housing, then tell him to find another job. WWUs president, Sabah Randhawa, is going to make $365,000 a year. With a salary like that he doesn’t even financially live on the same planet that the rest of us do. Tell him, it’s time for decisive action not words, you already know he’s a good speaker. We don’t need another speech. Time to put his money where his mouth is. Tell that to every dean, president, vice-president, and higher-up. It’s time for action. Time to build student housing, time to help out the community they live in, time for renewable. Time to stop pretending that it costs too much. Most of the installs could be done by teams of volunteers with a small amount of training. For example, panels could be installed by student volunteers and then one of the WWU master electricians can inspect them and hook them up when done. Time for real commitments. On the combined salaries of your higher-up administrators alone WWU can afford to install around 135 Million Watts of solar energy. Oh, and they could also take a pay-cut and give their adjunct professors benefits while they’re at it. They shouldn’t take such high salaries if they’re not taking care of their workers in the first place.


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