GU Fossil Free — a student campaign asking Georgetown to divest from investments in fossil fuel companies — has gathered 1,400 signatures on a petition to hold a student-wide referendum on the issue later this fall.
The group launched its divestment campaign last January by presenting a proposal to University President John J. DeGioia, which outlined a plan for the university to abandon its investments in fossil fuel companies. Details of the university’s investments are not public.
However, after meeting with administrators, including Chief Investment Officer Michael Barry, Chief Operating Office Chris Augostini and Vice President for Public Affairs Erik Smulson last spring, GU Fossil Free has modified its position to focus on staged divestment.
“They wanted to initiate a dialogue with us to figure out how to move this conversation forward in a positive way,” Patricia Cipollitti (SFS ’15), a student involved in GU Fossil Free, said. “They basically told us divestment is very difficult logistically but that’s it feasible in the future.”
While referendums have traditionally been brought forth by Georgetown University Student Association leaders and through the GUSA senate, GU Fossil Free is pursuing a referendum independently of the student association, though it must gain GUSA senate approval. The “One Georgetown, One Campus” campaign against a satellite residence, though led mainly by GUSAmembers, has also emphasized its status as distinct from GUSA as a way of reinforcing its relevance to the student body.
Though GU Fossil Free initially planned on joining the upcoming Sept. 26 ballot, which will includeGUSA senate elections and a referendum on a proposed satellite residence, it was unable to get senate approval before the body went into recess Sunday. It is standard protocol for the GUSA senate to approve a referendum for a proposal with more than 300 signatures.
Daniel Dylewsky (COL ’15), a student involved in GU Fossil Free, acknowledged that concurrent referendums would have increased visibility and turnout for GU Fossil Free, if for the wrong reasons.
“I think it’ll be more difficult to generate the same amount of turnout, but this will give us more time to make people more aware of the issue,” Dylewsky said. “Maybe we’ll get more people voting who have a stronger opinion on the issue, rather than it just being next to the issue they really care about on the ballot.”
Fossil Free members hope to have a referendum before Thanksgiving and are looking to engage students further on the issue over the course of the semester through campaigns, speakers and panels.
“We will have a more targeted campaign, one that is more inclusive of other student voices because we want this to be a productive conversation with everyone,” Cipollitti said.
Regardless of its timing, GU Fossil Free members hope the referendum will bolster their cause with the student body and the administration.
“Our hope with the referendum is if we have official student support of the cause it’ll bolster our case with the administration,” Dylewsky said.
GUSA senate Speaker George Spyropoulos (COL ’14) supported the referendum, but noted that it would be more contentious than past referendums, like those gaging student support of Student Activities Fee Endowment reform and raising the evidentiary standard for on-campus disciplinary violations from “more likely than not” to “clear and convincing.”
“I think people will be more divided than they have been on other issues,” Spyropoulos said.
GUSA Secretary of Sustainability Gabe Pincus (SFS ’14) sees the referendum as an opportunity to raise awareness of sustainability issues on campus.
“We think it’s an important conversation that needs to be had about divestment, and if the referendum brings this to the forefront of the campus conversation, I think that’s fantastic,” Pincus said. “There needs to be a lot of conversation about what divestment entails both environmentally and also financially for the university.”
However, Pincus is wary of students voting on an issue they might not fully understand.
“I do think that the university responds to students when student voices are strong and unified,” he said. “My worry is that the campus hasn’t been engaged fully on the subject in a meaningful way where students are aware of all of the implications, of what divestment actually entails.”
Some students, including members of Young Americans for Liberty oppose divestment.
“I think the argument that we should divest the endowment of fossil fuels is an overreaction meant to embarrass the fossil fuel industry,” YAL President Mitchell Tu (SFS ’17) said.
Director of Media Relations Rachel Pugh clarified the university’s continued consideration of GU Fossil Free’s proposal.
“Our Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility is currently reviewing the proposal from the Fossil Free group, and senior leaders continue to engage in thoughtful dialogue with the group. Georgetown is very proud of its record on sustainability both in its business practices and academic initiatives,” Pugh wrote in an email.
GU Fossil Free will be able to renew their referendum efforts when the new GUSA senate is elected and sworn in over the next few weeks.