Northeastern Disorientation

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Fossil Fuel Divestment at Northeastern

 · 4 mins read

One of the biggest betrayals of Northeastern’s claims of sustainability comes from its endowment. The university invests the $1.09 billion endowment, which is funded by donations, in a variety of stocks and financial assets to make more money and ensure financial sustainability. But when Northeastern invests in harmful industries such as fossil fuels, it is showing that it does not truly care about sustainability.

Students have been pushing Northeastern to divest its endowment from fossil fuels for a decade. DivestNU, the student-run campaign pushing this issue on campus, was founded in 2012. Over the following years, they held protests, disrupted events, met with administration, and championed a referendum supporting divestment that got 75% student support. They even occupied Centennial Common: in 2016, DivestNU members and other students camped out on the grass for 13 days to protest the lack of action from the administration, but the university refused to confront its connections to the fossil fuel industry, and continues to do so to this day.

“Invest, Not Divest”

In the face of mounting student pressure, the university did respond to DivestNU. In the summer of 2016, Northeastern released a statement that it would invest $25 million of the endowment in sustainability. Said Thomas Nedell, Northeastern’s treasurer:

“We have deliberately chosen to invest, not divest. This approach is consistent with Northeastern’s character as an institution that actively engages with the world, not one that retreats from global challenges.”

This is an inadequate response on multiple levels. At the time, Northeastern told students that it had 9% of its $729 million endowment, or $65 million, invested in fossil fuels. The $25 million sustainable investment is not even half of that amount. In addition, the characterization that divestment is “retreating from global challenges” is fundamentally wrong. Climate change is a global challenge that threatens everyone on the planet. Divestment seeks to slow climate change by getting institutions to cut ties with fossil fuels. In addition to taking away over $1 trillion in funding for fossil fuel projects, it also removes the social license of fossil fuel companies, making it unacceptable for insurers and financiers to deal with oil and gas companies. Divestment is not a retreat, but an act of resistance against the industry that is killing our planet.

Who’s In Charge? ExxonMobil on the Board of Trustees

The reason Northeastern is able to shrug off students’ demand for change is that students do not have decision-making power at Northeastern. That lies with the Board of Trustees, a committee of wealthy and powerful people who have control over the university’s finances and operations. And when it comes to fossil fuels, a former ExxonMobil official being the Vice Chair of the board does not bode well for change.

The man in question is Edward G. Galante. Galante, who is currently the independent Director of Clean Harbors — which has racked up over $22 million in environmental violations — retired in 2006 after more than 30 years with Exxon Mobil Corporation. He was a powerful executive who served as senior vice president and oversaw important areas like refining, fuels marketing, and research. He was also responsible for Exxon Mobil's corporate public affairs and safety, health and environmental activities. As many may be aware, Exxon Mobil has been one of the most detrimental companies in contributing to the climate crisis. According to Polluter Watch, Exxon Mobil ranks #2 in historic greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon also deliberately spread misinformation and deflected responsibility about the effects of its business of oil and gas on global warming, even though it knew as early as 1978 about the catastrophic effects that the continued use of fossil fuels would have on the planet.

Northeastern’s ties to the fossil fuel industry are completely contrary to its presentation as a “green campus”, and demonstrates its disinterest in following what the student body wants.

The Fight Continues

The need to reduce our fossil fuel use only grows as climate change becomes increasingly dire. That is why DivestNU has not given up, despite the obstruction and stubbornness of the administration on this issue. Supported by groups like the Husky Environmental Action Team (HEAT) and Sunrise Northeastern, DivestNU held a rally on Krentzman this spring and plans to continue fighting to get Northeastern to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to sustainability.

To get involved, fill out this form or follow DivestNU on instagram at @divest_northeastern.