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Clear leadership, student engagement moves Western forward

Transparency and student-led collaboration with Western is key to progressing toward an environmentally sustainable future.

The Old Main building on Western’s campus. The Western Foundation is housed within Old Main. Photo by Eva Waltz. 

By Nick Stringer

At Western Washington University, environmental sustainability is spearheaded by student action and supported by transparent leadership.

In spring of 2019, the switch of The Western Foundation’s asset manager — the group who manages the investments of the university’s endowment — from Commonfund to Russell Investments was an example of student action coordinating with leadership to shift toward environmental sustainability.

The Western Foundation receives money from donors and spends some of that money on scholarships and campus buildings while reinvesting the lion’s share of funds. This reinvestment ensures that the endowment is sustained from year to year.

But students can’t just expect that money to be in sustainable funds; they need to push for it.

As a member of Students for Renewable Energy, Natalie Sacker said that before she joined the club they concentrated most of their effort trying to get The Western Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.

The club’s campaign came to a head when they realized that Commonfund “wasn’t going to budge on divesting from any fossil fuels. They were just not willing to work with us on it,” Sacker said.

Despite being ignored by Commonfund, students at Western continued to advocate for sustainable investments.

In spring of 2019, The Western Foundation put out a routine request for proposal, seeking a new investments manager. Sacker said that Students for Renewable Energy was involved in deciding The Western Foundation’s next asset manager.

The club’s hard work eventually paid off when both The Western Foundation and the club decided on Seattle-based company Russell Investments.

Mark Brovak, CFO of The Western Foundation, said that “One of the things that was important to us when we went to that RFP [request for proposal] was the providers’ ability to provide what we call a sustainable investing solution. Russell really brought to the table what we felt was a really great ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] solution or a great sustainable investing solution.”

Sacker said this type of investment works by overweighting the type of companies who invest in renewable technologies while underweighting companies who may be involved with fossil fuels.

Basically, it emphasized the investments that support Western student’s values of sustainability.

Since switching to Russell Investments, 50% of Western’s endowment — or collection of donated money — is in a sustainable multi-asset growth fund, Brovak said. This means that half of the university’s assets are invested in corporations who are not involved in fossil fuels.

“It’s a pretty big win after years of back and forth trying to find a way to move forward,” Sacker said.

However, Sacker said Students for Renewable Energy were not done fighting for their vision of a fossil-free university.

The Western Foundation has turned away from coal entirely, but some of its assets aren’t separated from fossil fuels, Sacker said. Students for Renewable Energy are hoping they will eventually see The Western Foundation completely disengage from fossil fuels.

“It’s definitely our goal to eventually get our money out of all fossil fuels, not just coal,” Sacker said. “That’s why we want to keep an open line of communication with The Foundation and a good working relationship with them, just to make sure that that’s still being pushed for.”

The club and The Western Foundation know that it will likely take much longer to accomplish that goal.

Brovak said that The Western Foundation’s investments are restricted to specific areas such as stocks, bonds and real assets; it doesn’t have total liberty to change its investments. As a consequence, the money they put toward sustainable funds may be limited.

“Could we invest a little bit more percentage-wise? We probably could,” Brovak said. “But at some point in time we run into a problem where the fund just doesn’t accomplish all of that.”

Brovak said The Western Foundation also wants to involve students more in the future but doesn’t have specific plans.

He mentioned The Western Foundation’s website as a way for students to see where the money is invested and the actions The Foundation makes, but pointed out that there is still work to be done.

If students are encouraged to have a voice in the actions of their foundation, then they need to be able to communicate their perspective.

Brovak said that the website needs improvement and doesn’t accomplish everything he wants it to.

“We are really endeavoring to re-engage with that and try and get more out there from a disclosure standpoint ... so people are more aware,” Brovak said.

Sacker said The Western Foundation could be more transparent with students regarding its investment decisions.

“I definitely think The Foundation could do better as a whole explaining its endowment process and what it’s invested in,” Sacker said.

The Western Foundation isn’t the only organization that has room for growth regarding transparency.

Lindsey MacDonald, interim director for the Office of Sustainability at Western, said the office displays metrics for Western’s energy consumption and carbon output, but the website they use doesn’t have much visibility.

“That feels like a gap in my mind, for us right now,” MacDonald said. “We track all these numbers behind the scenes, but in terms of making those numbers publicly available there’s a lot of potential improvement for sure.”

Students who want to create a sustainable future with their university need to be able to see which areas of the university require more work.

One of the reasons behind the energy-tracking dashboard was the Sustainability Action Plan which the university adopted in 2017. The plan outlines multiple ways the university can become more sustainable.

MacDonald said the university is having mixed success in following these goals, one of which was achieving carbon neutrality by 2035.

“I would say that’s a pretty ambitious goal,” MacDonald said. “There are areas within the plan that feel really on track. In certain areas, we’re already there. In some areas, I think we’ve got a lot of progress to make.”

Students who want the university to achieve this goal need to speak up. MacDonald said the administration values student input and thinks there’s room to coordinate.

The Office of Sustainability has plans for creating committees that will help Western stay on track and pursue new goals — with an emphasis on social justice — that may not have been explicitly planned out in the 2017 Sustainable Action Plan, MacDonald said.

“Those committees would help us identify where those places were where we’re not meeting the targets in terms of the action plan and what might we do to get there,” MacDonald said.

Jill MacIntyre Witt, a Western professor in the environmental studies department, said creating and pushing for transitions to completely sustainable energy doesn’t rely on a single person or entity.

“It takes everybody; it takes faculty, it takes staff, it takes management, it takes students to make this stuff happen,” MacIntyre Witt said.

Transparency and student collaboration are important in the transition to carbon-free energy because it helps those involved know how to organize their next steps and decide which progressive actions to take.

MacDonald emphasized students’ power to create change.

“It’s more likely, I think, that a student — or a group of students — is going to be effective in advocating for change because you’re who we all work for in a certain way,” MacDonald said.

Students for Renewable Energy rely on student collaboration for their work.

“We have much more power together than alone if we’re able to coordinate our efforts or pool our knowledge and our skills and our experiences together,” Sacker said.

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