Student environmental activists felt a buzz of excitement when the Georgetown University Board of Directors voted to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuel companies in February 2020, after eight years of advocacy by student group GU Fossil Free (GUFF).
However, after the board’s decision, former GUFF leaders and other sustainability advocates found that the road to divestment would not be an open and transparent process. Instead, university bureaucracy, vague statements and unanswered questions have blocked clarity on divestment efforts, according to Victoria Boatwright, a member of the Georgetown Renewable Energy Environmental Network (GREEN).
“The university has been becoming less and less transparent with their investments,” Boatwright said in an interview with The Hoya.
For student activists like Boatwright, who devoted years to the divestment campaign, the university’s reluctance to include and update students on divestment efforts is concerning.
“This was a student initiative. This was a thing that students showed they were really interested in,” Boatwright said. “And it’s frustrating to see the university think because the boards of directors passed it, that it doesn’t have to be a student-involved process.”
After the university’s divestment announcement, GUFF disbanded, having accomplished its mission. Now, as the Georgetown Renewable Energy and Environmental Network (GREEN) has taken on advocacy in their wake, students say they still cannot find information on how much of the exact amount of the endowment remains still tied to fossil fuels.
Georgetown announced in February 2020 that it would begin a ten-year process to divest the university’s endowment from fossil fuels, committing to divesting from public securities of fossil fuel companies by 2025 and existing private investments in those companies by 2030.
GUFF began campaigning for divestment in 2013 and presented its first divestment proposal to the university in October 2014, which the university rejected. However, GUFF continued to push the university on sustainability and divestment, with its efforts paying off in 2018 when the university announced its divestment from tar sands, among other small wins along the way to full divestment.
Since the 2020 divestment announcement, the Georgetown University Investment Office has stopped making new investments in fossil fuel companies, terminated its relationship with an external manager that focused on natural resource companies and moved additional investments into a fund that excludes fossil fuel producers, according to a university spokesperson.
Prior to February 2020, Georgetown had less than 5% of its $1.9 billion endowment invested in fossil fuel companies. The university has not made any further public statements on divestment since their initial announcement.
While other universities, like Harvard and Yale, regularly release statistics on how much of their endowments are invested in public and private equities, hedge funds and other assets, Georgetown does not publicly disclose information on any of its investments, fossil fuel-related and otherwise.
A university spokesperson declined to tell The Hoya what percentage of the endowment is still invested in fossil fuels.
In October 2021, five former members of GUFF emailed Cal Watson, assistant vice president of public affairs and business policy, and Chief Investment Officer Michael Barry to request the university fully disclose the percentage of the endowment still invested in fossil fuel companies and provide students with consistent updates.
“We imagine that full disclosure may look like anything from solely disclosing the names of the various stocks, index funds, mutual funds, or ETFs currently invested in fossil fuels to sharing a complete portfolio with amounts,” the former GUFF members wrote in the email.
As of December 2020, Georgetown still had almost $14 million invested in three fossil fuel companies — PDC Energy, Range Resources and Antero Resources — according to a 13F-HR investment report publicly released by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The university is following its plan to divest from oil and gas producer companies, Watson wrote in his reply to GUFF, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Hoya. But neither Barry nor Watson responded to the request for accountability and transparency, according to Boatwright.
Chief Investment Officer Barry and members of the Board of Directors’ Subcommittee on Investments make decisions related to endowment policy. Georgetown’s Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility (CISR) serves as an advisory body responsible for providing advice on implementing the University’s Socially Responsible Investing Policy. In 2016 and 2017, GUFF worked with the university to establish this Socially Responsible Investing Policy, which aims to align Georgetown investments with the university’s commitment to the protection of human life and stewardship of the planet.
GREEN and former GUFF members aim to give all students access to current information and updates on the university’s endowment policy and the divestment process, according to a follow-up email from Boatwright to Watson and Barry in November.
“Our biggest concern is the availability of information on the divestment process,” the follow-up email read. “Whether that be through quarterly reports indicating percentages of investments in fossil fuel companies or through an up-to-date website with updates on new actions.”
Neither Barry nor Watson responded to this follow-up email, according to Boatwright.
“We had to reach out personally to get that information, and it’s still not a lot of information,” Boatwright said. “It’s frustrating to see the university think that because the Board of Directors passed it, it doesn’t have to be a student-involved process.”
Georgetown has continued to implement the February 2020 divestment policy, remaining on track to fully divest from fossil fuel companies by 2030, according to a university spokesperson.
However, former GUFF member Lucy Chatfield (COL ’22) and her fellow student advocates are concerned about the university’s supposed progress and want to see concrete evidence of the university’s steps toward divestment.
“It’s worrying,” Chatfield said in an interview with The Hoya. “I’ve had conversations with other people that care about this and other members about how we could get announcements from the chief investment officer about where they’re at monthly, twice a year, to at least make sure that it’s something that they’re thinking about.”
Shouldering the Responsibility
Since returning to campus, students have called on the university to be more transparent about other sustainability and environmental issues, along with divestment. A lack of transparency and accountability from the university has forced student advocates to bear the burden of leading sustainability efforts, according to GREEN and former GUFF members.
The most recent campus-wide sustainability report is from 2011, which details past progress on sustainability efforts. The most recent summary of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions is from 2015.
In 2014, Georgetown announced it would use the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) tool, a self-reporting framework allowing universities to measure their sustainability to obtain a campus-wide benchmark that could guide further decision-making.
Despite being named on the STARS website as a registered participant, there are no public reports available for Georgetown’s progress. In comparison, American University, George Washington University, University of Pennsylvania and 550 other universities have made their self-reported STARS report findings publicly available.
GREEN has also shouldered significant responsibility in creating tangible goals and steps toward accountability, according to Karan Chauhan (SFS ’22), a member of GREEN, adding that the university does not have a comprehensive set of goals or reporting methods for sustainability efforts.
“There wasn’t any one document with actionable steps and mechanisms to hold the university administration accountable to make that progress towards those goals that a lot of other peer institutions had,” Chauhan said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya.
To encourage a transparent and streamlined sustainability plan, GREEN released the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan Proposal in March 2021, which urges the university to create a sustainability plan with long-term and short-term sustainability goals, clearly communicate its efforts and results and involve students in the process.
The proposal simulates the framework of a possible comprehensive plan, outlining seven main sectors of sustainability, each with specific, time-oriented goals. Among other goals, the proposal suggests adopting a 10-year plan for reducing potable water use, becoming waste free by 2035 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
The administration did not respond to GREEN when the organization released its plan in March, according to Rita Alan (SFS ’24), an author of the plan and member of GREEN.
However, the administration did invite some students from GREEN to help with the interviewing process for the inaugural vice president of sustainability position after the proposal’s release, according to Chauhan.
Following the departure of the Office of Sustainability’s (OOS) Director Audrey Stewart in January 2021, the university hired Meghan Chapple as its first vice president of sustainability.
In her new position, Chapple plans to coordinate with students and build upon GREEN’s comprehensive plan to create a streamlined sustainability process.
“My hope is that we can have a sustainability mindset that will permeate daily life and work at Georgetown,” Chapple wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We will invite students, faculty, staff and external partners to join this process, and we will draw on plans that have been developed to date, including GREEN’s proposed campus sustainability plan drafted in March 2021.”
Chapple’s hiring is an important step toward including students in conversations on sustainability, according to Brooke Hodge (SFS ’24), a member of GREEN.
“I’ve already seen a lot of progress as far as communication and transparency and wanting to involve students,” Hodge said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “There’s already been a lot of progress in the past year.”
Slow Steps Toward Sustainability
As the first vice president of sustainability, Chapple plans to heavily involve students in sustainability and environmental issues in order to drive transparency.
“It is my intention that the Office of Sustainability will publicly share the university sustainability strategy, the follow-on implementation plans and regular reports on progress to reach our goals,” Chapple wrote.
Student input will also inform how the university communicates divestment updates with students, according to Chapple.
“We would like to hear from the Georgetown community about how they would like to be informed on the divestment process, whether an annual update or timeline or other suggestions,” Chapple wrote. “Students can join our monthly sustainability town hall meetings to provide their ideas.”
The OOS plans to pursue a formal sustainability strategy process including students, faculty and staff in the conversation, and aims to use GREEN’s sustainability plan and other previously published reports to inform the process, according to Chapple.
Students in GREEN were relieved by Chapple’s arrival and the creation of her new role, as it allows them to return to their role of advocacy without shouldering the heavy responsibility of creating a comprehensive sustainability plan alone, according to Alan.
“Now that she’s in charge and having this framework moving forward, it takes a lot of the pressure off of us, because now it’s more so we can provide student input and say this is what students want,” Alan said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “But we don’t have to be the main ones trying to drive this conversation.”
To hear student input, Chapple and Georgetown Environmental Initiative director Peter Marra have begun leading monthly town halls on sustainability, which any Georgetown community member can attend and raise concerns or ideas about sustainability efforts.
As in-person town halls return, they offer the opportunity for more interaction between students and administrators and will help drive an open access to information, according to Hodge.
“The town halls are a big step towards improvement because what I think the biggest issue that I’ve had with Georgetown has been their lack of transparency on their environmental initiatives because they are doing so much that we just don’t know about or don’t hear about,” Hodge said.
While the town halls are a step toward transparency, there is still a long way to go in informing the student body on divestment and sustainability efforts, according to Chatfield.
The university has a responsibility to include student voices in Georgetown’s divestment and sustainability initiatives and provide more transparency, according to Boatwright.
“It’s easier to just not have to deal with students’ input,” Boatwright said. “But I think it’s the right thing to do.”