The divestment campaign at St. Thomas University (STU) is an example of student-led activism, calling for systems change at the local level, with hopes of influencing system change on a larger scale.
The Divest STU campaign approaches institutional change by examining the power structures at the university and identifying key decision makers. Different levels of power within the University’s structure include students, staff, faculty, and administration.
Divest STU aims to increase awareness of fossil fuel divestment on the STU campus. Many students do not know that STU invests more than $1 million in fossil fuel stocks every year, and most are shocked when they learn that fact. Creating an understanding of the issue is the first step in gaining support from the STU community.
To circulate information and raise awareness of the importance of divestment at STU, the campaign has distributed fact sheets to students, delivered presentations to environmental classes, circulated a petition, and distributed orange square pins to students who support divestment at STU.
The orange square is one of the most important parts of the STU divestment campaign – students place these pins on their backpacks, showing a visual sign of support for fossil fuel divestment. The visual sign of support is eye catching and sparks a conversation when people see it. This is a great way of circulating information and spreading awareness of the campaign across campus.
The petition builds the number of supporters for divestment – it collects signatures from students, staff, faculty and alumni from STU. The petition will be presented this term during the campaign’s official proposal to the Investment Committee, and eventually the Board of Governors, to give board members an idea of how many people truly support this decision.
Most students are generally interested in environmental issues, because climate change will have an impact on their futures. Many faculty members are also concerned about environmental issues, as most have a strong understanding of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change.
In March 2018, student activists presented the idea of fossil fuel divestment to the St. Thomas Students’ Union (STUSU) and to the Faculty Association of the University of St. Thomas (FAUST). Both groups voted unanimously in support of fossil fuel divestment, marking two important accomplishments in the campaign. STUSU acts as a representative body for the entire student population at STU, and FAUST represents all faculty.
Gaining support from these two groups proves that there is interest and desire to see STU divest from holdings in fossil fuels. However, the divestment campaign must also address a broader challenge.
The iceberg model can help us understand the problem. The tip of the iceberg is what you see on the surface – the visible, obvious issue. In this case, it is STU’s investments in the fossil fuel industry. The university invests more than $1 million annually in fossil fuel stocks to generate profit, even though the fossil fuel industry is driving the climate crisis. This issue is easy to identify, but if you look below the surface, other factors have influenced the university to make these investments.
Fossil fuel investments are often made with an underlying belief that fossil fuels are and always will be profitable. This may have been true in the past but is no longer the case. The industry is in decline, as research has proven that fossil fuels are no longer a sustainable long-term resource.
STU is a small university with a small endowment. At the end of the day, $1 million divested from the fossil fuel industry will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – but divestment is more than just a financial move.
Divestment is a symbolic act. A university that divests is stating that the institution does not support the destructive practices of the fossil fuel industry. This decision creates a shift in discourse, encouraging more dialogue about the impacts of the fossil fuel industry on the environment.
Persistently challenging the dominant discourse can eventually change underlying assumptions, values and beliefs, creating a transformation in attitudes toward the issue. The act of divesting from fossil fuels can influence a socio-cultural shift in attitudes at STU, transforming the way the administration approaches action at the University.
The Divest STU campaign directly addresses the tip of the iceberg, but also indirectly has an impact on the root driver of the issue: the fossil fuel industry and social attitudes towards it.
If STU commits to divesting its endowment from the fossil fuel industry, the decision could influence much broader social and systemic change. Divestment at STU would shift attitudes among administration, students, staff, faculty and alumni, potentially causing a ripple effect throughout New Brunswick.
When one institution makes a major decision like this, it can influence other universities to follow in their footsteps. Eventually, that local change influences a much greater systemic and social transformation. Divesting from fossil fuels creates a “system legitimacy crisis” which undermines the industry as a whole by eliminating their financial support and shifting social attitudes towards the industry.
Fossil fuel divestment campaigns on university campuses have the potential to influence not only local change, but much larger system change. Through power and systems analysis, activists can address the issue in an effective way that holds their institutions accountable, while creating social change and destabilizing the fossil fuel industry.
Hannah Moore is a fourth year Environment & Society major at St. Thomas University, the leader of the STU divestment campaign and a researcher on the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.