Your Voice

Opinion: Stockton needs to stop stalling full commitment to fossil fuel divestment

Stockton’s road to fossil fuel divestment has been a long, winding, and shady path—with no foreseeable end. In March 2021, the Student Senate unanimously passed a resolution stating that the Board of Trustees and the Stockton Foundation must divest a combined $2.15 million from fossil fuel sector investments. As of today, nearly two years later, the commitment has yet to gain any more traction. By not providing this initiative with the swift and explicit support it requires, Stockton’s administration plants its feet firmly on the wrong side of history, taking an active role in securing an unsafe, inequitable, and dangerous future for its students and generations to come. Decrees of solidarity with marginalized communities plastered across social media and admissions websites ring hollow. The zygote of inaction is fertilized by the seed of hypocrisy. Injustice is born.

Fossil fuels like natural gas, petroleum, or coal are characterized by their nonrenewable nature and massive potential for environmental harm. The violence that the continued use of fossil fuels inflicts on our planet is often cited as reason enough to reduce our use of them in favor of more sustainable energy systems. Less often discussed are the well-documented and damning ways in which the fossil fuel industry disproportionately impacts our society’s most marginalized —low-income individuals, people of color, immigrants, refugees, and indigenous communities. The list of negative impacts of our dependence on the fossil fuel industry is lengthy but includes health hazards from pollution, extreme weather events caused by global warming, and the threat of what will happen when we run out. That’s where the concept of divestment comes in. Put simply, divestment describes the removal of investments. An organization can divest from fossil fuels by selling its stocks, thereby severing its ties to and financial endorsement of a tremendously harmful industry. This would serve as an impactful action by the University to endorse the principles of sustainability and social justice. The path to divestment is not an untrodden one, either. Across the nation, over a hundred schools have made firm commitments, including Rutgers and Princeton in New Jersey alone.

So how much money does Stockton have invested in the fossil fuel sector? A correspondence between University Leadership (on behalf of Stockton’s Board of Trustees and the Foundation Board of Directors) and Student Senate, provided by Senate President Brianna Bracey, states that “While neither portfolio makes direct investments in fossil fuels, both the University’s investments and the Foundation’s endowment do have minuscule potential exposure through energy funds in which they are invested. Energy funds include fossil fuel investment as well as alternate energy investment. For the University, this exposure totals (as of 2/24/2021) $1,659,000 or 1.6% of the approximate $100,000,000 portfolio. For the Foundation’s endowment, the total is $587,800 or 1.2% of the approximate $50,000,000 portfolio. This exposure is potential and not actually owning of common or blue chip stocks in individual companies, they are parts of larger funds that cover many investments.” 

If you’re confused, you probably should be. The statement reads contradictory at best, and downright intentionally misleading at its worst. Most importantly, what categorizes any amount as “minuscule” is entirely subjective. This information was enough for the Student Senate to officially put the issue to rest, however: “As of now, the Student Senate is no longer having this discussion regarding investment. It is because of the mere fact that so little a percentage of Stockton’s money is directly invested in fossil fuels,” said Bracey. I would argue that any amount of money invested in fossil fuels, directly or indirectly, is unacceptable regardless of how it compares to other investments. It seems that our student representatives do not share that view.

Even so, I’m not alone in my sentiment. Ben Dziobek, 22’, spearheaded the original divestment efforts at Stockton back in 2021 from his seat as President of the Stockton Environmental Club and Chairman of the Students Affairs Committee on the Student Senate. “This does not align with the mission we first set out in. Many of the current senators and senate President supported divestment in the past and were advocates of my objective; though sadly it seems divestment, and Stockton’s commitment to being New Jersey’s Green University, has fallen to the wayside,” he said in response to the news that the Student Senate would no longer be pursuing the initiative. “The answer we received from the administration and its investors when they came and spoke to the senate on this topic was basically ‘we don’t feel like doing this’. They said that by being invested in fossil fuel companies we become shareholders, and can advocate for these companies to become greener. I understand that is a very important part of being a shareholder in these companies… No matter the size of our investment in fossil fuels, we should be following suit with other universities like Harvard and Princeton who we worked with to completely phase out investments in fossil fuels.” If no examples of shareholder advocacy by Stockton’s administration can be found, that would make their justification to remain invested in fossil fuel sectors for that reason less credible. Current Environmental Club leadership seems to be on the same page. “We believe that the university did not actually look into divestment options. They placated our efforts to organize in support of divestment by sending hollow public statements, but no real change was made,” said Sophia Bradach, current President and Public Relations Chair.

It’s not too late for the University to change its trajectory. The recent election of Joe Bertolino as Stockton’s next President provides the potential for ushering in new ideas and priorities. I acknowledge that I have limited knowledge of the intricacies of investment and divestment processes. It is unrealistic to expect the university to take action on this issue overnight. However, there are simple steps that can be taken to lead New Jersey’s (debatably) “Green University” on a more righteous path. For one, part of the Environmental Club’s original 2021 resolution called for a task force composed of students, faculty, and administration that would oversee Stockton’s divestment process as well as review other existing and future investments. The resolution also appealed for Stockton to issue an official apology to the campus community, and specifically the greater BIPOC community, for endangering their futures. It is clear that the Environmental Club went through great trouble to provide the administration with a solid framework for beginning the divestment process. All that is left to do is for the University to take advantage of it. It may take another collective student effort to get them back on track. 

Just last week, President Biden approved the controversial Willow Project, an oil drilling operation of colossal scale planned for Alaska’s North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserve. The project was approved just before the release of the latest IPCC report, which warned that only drastic and immediate measures can save the Earth from climate devastation of biblical proportions. With such monumental turning points in the climate crisis happening as we go about our day-to-day lives, the urgency of action grows parallel to the looming threat of irreversible environmental disaster. It is imperative that the older generation listens to the opinions of the younger generation as we inherit stewardship of the Earth they are ruining.