The Georgetown University Student Association senate rejected an initiative that would have created a student referendum of support for GU Fossil Free’s divestment goals on Sunday evening, citing a need to prioritize other issues on campus, such as sexual assault policy reform.
The proposal is the second time GUFF has attempted to pass a student-wide referendum. In 2013, GUFF attempted to pass a referendum, then decided to postpone the vote, proposing a need to further educate the Georgetown community on the issue of divestment.
The current initiative — which resulted in 13 votes against, five abstentions and three votes in favor — was announced by GUFF in a YouTube video released in early November. If passed, the referendum would have been placed on the GUSA executive ballot in February, with the aim of allowing students to cast a non-binding vote on whether the university endowment should divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.
To demonstrate community support for divestment, GUFF presented a petition of over 2,500 signatures from students, faculty and alumni and students from other universities, which began in January 2013.
The initiative required a two-thirds majority to pass, and follows the university board of director’s decision to divest from direct investments in coal mining companies in June. GUFF criticized the decision as insufficient on their website following the announcement.
The proposal would have led to the first campus-wide referendum since Georgetown students’ decision against creating a “satellite campus” in Clarendon in 2013. The referendum, spearheaded by former GUSA President Nate Tisa (SFS ’14) and Chief of Staff Zach Singer (SFS ’15), showed that 93 percent of 2,966 student voters were against the satellite residence.
At the GUSA senate’s weekly meeting in Healy Hall, the referendum was open for debate for 30 minutes before senators voted to add an additional seven minutes of discourse. Most questions by members of the GUSA senate regarded challenges of referendum language and need, presented to Aaron Silberman (SFS ’18) — GUFF’s representative at the meeting — and GUSA senator from the Southwest Quad Theo Montgomery (SFS ’18). Montgomery, a GUFF member, is the author of the referendum bill.
The bill’s main opponent was Deep Dheri (MSB ’16), a member of the public, who wrote an op-ed opposing divestment in The Hoya on Nov. 10. Dheri said that the bill was misleading and suggested that divestment actually had negative consequences for the environment.
“The reason divestment would actually harm the environment if it gains traction is [that] divestment, by definition, lowers stock prices of companies because it is selling the stock,” Dheri said. “When the stock prices of those companies is lowered but the price of oil hasn’t [changed] … [companies are] going to take more out of the environment.”
Dheri said that divestment does not qualify for a referendum, as Georgetown students are not substantially affected by the university endowment.
“I don’t think there should be student input sought on this issue because it is not a student issue,” Dheri said.
Dheri also said that it is not fair to host a referendum when the only groups involved in the discussion, specifically GUFF, are pro-divestment and would campaign on social media in favor of the referendum without opposition.
“There’s no group opposing it. You know GU Fossil Free is going to be doing their marketing,” Dheri said.
In proposing an alternative solution to combating climate change, Dheri said that boycotting oil and gas companies would be more productive than divestment.
After Dheri addressed the GUSA senate, Speaker of the Senate Enushe Khan (MSB ’17) reminded Dheri that the vote for debate was focused on the merits of a nonbinding referendum bill, not the efficacy or morality of divestment itself.
Montgomery said he would not comment on the environmental impact of divestment because it would get off topic from the issue of the referendum.
“Boycotting may be a better strategy, but I think divestment is a step towards boycotting,” Montgomery said.
According to Montgomery, students deserve democratic input on the issue of divestment.
“Students are not currently alumni, but will be alumni someday soon, so we do have some sort of stake in this decision,” Montgomery said. “Anyone is free to mount an opposition against this divestment campaign. What you’re doing by saying this shouldn’t happen … is arguing against the principles of democracy.”
Silberman said that he was upset with the results of the vote on the referendum but stated that GUFF could still get the GUSA senate to reconsider its vote.
“The issue can be reconsidered and perhaps reworked … so that it can become more agreeable and more likely to appear on the ballot,” Silberman said.
Silberman also said he respected Dheri’s argument but concluded that many misunderstandings exist on the nature of the referendum.
“While the debate was healthy … and we are grateful for the variety of opinions that came from such people as Deep, that might oppose divestment … I think that there were a number of misconceptions as to the purpose, value and nature of referendums,” Silberman said.
Off-Campus Senator Eric Henshall (COL ’16) voted against the referendum despite supporting divestment on campus.
“I voted no on the referendum, not because I believe divestment is a bad idea or something the university should not pursue, but because it would distract from other issues that GUSA is working on or are facing us,” Henshall said.
Some senators argued that sexual assault reform is a more pressing issue on campus.
“I think Theo and GU Fossil Free feel very strongly about this issue, and I think it’s an important issue and I applaud their advocacy,” Henshall said. “However, I don’t think it is an appropriate topic for a referendum.”
Khan said she ultimately abstained from the vote despite having previously thought she would vote in favor due to Dheri and Henshall’s arguments.
“I actually did enter this sort of meeting with the expectation I’d be voting in favor, but I [abstained after] hearing Deep’s argument and also Senator Henshall’s regarding that there are [more] pressing issues on this campus, namely sexual assault or socio-economic status,” Khan said. “I didn’t realize before that we should probably focus more on student-life issues.”
Montgomery said he is disappointed with the outcome of the vote but appreciated the amount of debate and thought that went into the decision.
“I voted yes, principally because I was the architect of this bill and thus I believe in it,” Montgomery said in an interview with The Hoya. “I thought [there] were legitimate challenges. … I was happy to see a high level of dialogue and engagement with this issue. I will say I am disappointed in how it turned out.”
Dheri said that he was glad to see GUSA agreed with him in rejecting the referendum.
“I was happy with the result,” Dheri said in an interview with The Hoya. “I agree with the decision given the more pressing issues of sexual assault, the campus plan, mental health and accessibility.”