Fossil Free AU advocates: Burwell will not support divestment from fossil fuels

Group plans more “antagonistic” approach to pressure Board of Trustees

Fossil Free AU advocates: Burwell will not support divestment from fossil fuels

Protesters hold up signs critical of the Board of Trustees outside their winter meeting on Feb. 23. 

University President Sylvia Burwell told Fossil Free AU members that she will not support divestment from fossil fuels at a Jan. 18 meeting, according to three students at the meeting.

Fossil Free AU, a student-run campaign that has pushed AU to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, had hoped Burwell might support their efforts to convince the Board of Trustees to divest. According to students who met with Burwell -- Lauren Peressini, Gracie Brett and Hannah Klaus -- Burwell cited financial reasoning for her lack of support.

“We were hopeful as her position as the first woman president, her involvement in politics and because of her listening tour, she really seemed like she cared about students’ voices,” Peressini, a longtime member of the group, said. “She worked under Obama and he is on the record as endorsing divestment, and she’s vocal about her experience in that role.”

In 2013, a Student Government referendum encouraging the University to divest passed with about 79 percent of students voting in support, The Eagle previously reported. But in 2014, the Board voted unanimously against divestment.

Mark Story, AU’s director of strategic communications, confirmed that Burwell met with members of Fossil Free AU on Jan. 18. Burwell’s point to students at the meeting was that “AU does not have any direct investments in fossil fuel companies,” Story told The Eagle.

Because AU’s investments are in “commingled funds” -- or a fund consisting of assets from several accounts that are blended together -- the University “does not have the ability to pick and choose” the contents of those funds, Story said.

“President Burwell also highlighted that this is a Board of Trustees matter that the Board has reviewed and studied in great depth, and she asked the students to understand the complexity of the issues and the broader context for the implications for our community,” Story wrote in an email.

Story did not directly confirm that Burwell said she will not support divestment for financial reasons.

Peressini and Brett feel that while Burwell does not have a vote on the Board of Trustees, her voice and opinion has influence over the University’s direction. 

“We thought that maybe the tide would turn a little bit after [former president Neil] Kerwin left,” Brett said. “We were hoping that she’d either support divestment, even though she doesn't have the ability to vote … or at least she'd be open to the idea and we could continue the conversation.”

During the Kerwin administration, the Board approved creating a “Green Investment Fund,” among other measures meant to address concerns about the University’s investments. Kerwin retired in June 2017.

Burwell’s comments proved that Burwell’s administration is similar to the previous administration under Kerwin, Brett said.

“[Fossil Free AU] aims to make it perfectly clear that while Sylvia Burwell aesthetically may appear to be different from the last administration, essentially she's not,” Brett said.

Miranda Dotson, a member of the group, said the Board does not reflect the views of students toward divestment.

“We pay to be here, and I know we’re not on the Board of Trustees, but it's very frustrating how the board does not reflect the student interest, especially because American University prides itself on being liberal,” Dotson said.

Fossil Free will escalate its efforts to pressure the University to divest now that they know Burwell’s position, Peressini said. Their first action this semester included the launch of a social media campaign about the Board of Trustees and protesting outside the Board’s winter meeting last week. 

“This means taking a more antagonistic approach in our campaign and realizing that the administration is not our ally in this and continuing to put pressure on the University to uphold its values,” Peressini said.

The University won’t respond to student concerns about divestment unless there is more pressure, Brett said.

“It’s not until they are threatened in a real way that they will really change their ways so students need to be brave and should not be afraid to say something when things are wrong,” Brett said.

The University is taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2020, including the launch of a trial of a new heating and cooling system designed to reduce carbon emissions. Burwell has also publicly committed to AU’s carbon neutrality goal. But AU’s promotion of its sustainability efforts rings hollow to Peressini.

“The fact that we’re still pouring money into fossil fuels -- all the sustainability talk doesn't really matter when you're funding chaos,” Peressini said.

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