Marquette University, a Jesuit Catholic college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, announced on March 24 that it has updated its endowment policy to “not include any direct public investments in fossil fuels.” In other words, Marquette has taken a huge and very public step towards divesting from fossil fuels.
“To me, I think this announcement means that this is at least a step they’re taking moving into the future, but it’s very unclear on when that is,” Maddie Keuhn, a leader of Fossil Free Marquette and a junior studying psychology and sociology, said in an email to The Gavel. “I personally don’t feel confident saying that Marquette has 100% divested from fossil fuels.”
This announcement comes just under a year after a referendum showed 87% of the almost 7,000 Marquette students who voted supported a five-year divestment plan. In 2019, the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) had its own referendum on a presidential ballot, and showed that 80% of voting students believed that Boston College should withhold investments from the fossil fuel industry.
About six months before Marquette’s recent announcement, a number of nationwide divestment and environmental groups signed onto a letter of complaint addressed President Michael Lovell and the Marquette University Board of Trustees and sent it to state officials. This complaint was compiled with the assistance of the Climate Defense Project. In the letter, Keuhn said, Fossil Free Marquette and several other groups “outlined the need for fossil fuel divestment from fiduciary, legal, ethical, and religious standpoints.” Marquette did not reply to the letter, and did not make any official statement regarding the complaint.
A similar complaint was filed regarding the Boston College Board of Trustees in 2020, spearheaded by an alum and signed by alumni, politicians, and other concerned groups. These complaints assert that by investing in fossil fuels, the universities fail to advance the progress of their respective institutions on behalf of their students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
Harvard University pledged to cease investing in fossil fuels in September 2021, as did Boston University. Many of Boston College’s peer institutions (both Jesuit and local) have made the decision to move towards divestment. Boston College President Father Leahy, who was a faculty member at Marquette before serving as its Executive Vice President, has expressed no interest in divestment.
Keuhn speculates that many, including university administrators, may be wary of divestment because they may see it, and climate justice, as a partisan issue that would alienate donors. “When it comes to the decision of whether or not to divest, I think that there’s apprehension on what message their decision sends to the public,” she said. “I think that universities see it as ‘taking a side’ of a political argument.”
Another reason that Keuhn thinks universities may be hesitant to divest is because there is limited information on the performance of endowments once a school has divested. “Fossil fuel divestment is a relatively new strategy in terms of reaching the goal of climate justice,” she said. “Endowment performance is really important when it comes to making huge choices such as divestment, I’m sure that it’s difficult for investment committees and trustees to make this decision when we can’t be sure what the long term performance looks like.”
Marquette University, home of the Golden Eagles, is laying the groundwork to set an example for Jesuit universities across the nation to divest from fossil fuels. Many Boston College students hope that one day, BC will follow in its footsteps.