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NU students lead charge for university to divest from coal

(Chicago Tribune file photo )
February 21, 2013|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

Northwestern University's Associated Student Government passed a resolution at the end of January urging the school's administration to divest from the coal industry.

Since passing the resolution, the student government and Northwestern's Responsible Endowment Coalition has received more than 1,000 signatures from faculty, staff, alumni and students asking the university for three things: that the university begin a full divestment from the coal industry, increase its investments in renewable energy and clean technologies, and actively pursue the full divestment from the fossil fuel industry in the near future.

Mark Silberg, a 21-year-old philosophy major and Northwestern's Associated Student Government's Vice President of Sustainability, said the student government was "very much inspired" by the national movement toward fossil fuels divestment.

"We're just trying to get people mobilized behind this idea that as stakeholders in this institution, we can make suggestions and recommendations to some of the larger decisions that our university makes," Silberg said. "I think that's a pretty powerful message for people who really care about this stuff, and for people who care about the future of Northwestern."

The petition has received 1,253 signatures to date. Silberg said he hopes the administration and the university's board of trustees will work with the student government to discuss what the entire Northwestern community can do to build a greener future.

"Northwestern was the third university in the country to divest from oil and electricity companies in the Sudan," Silberg said. "And to this day, we talk about how proud we are that we were one of the first universities to say, ‘We're going to take a stand against what we believe is an immoral industry.' And I think we can do that again. There's no reason why we can't do it."

According to Northwestern's Director of Sustainability Robert Whittier, since coal and fossil fuel investments play a significant part in the school's more than $7 billion total endowment used to fund many of the school's programs and capital projects, any changes to the endowment is a huge undertaking--but the student support for the cause is proof of how passionate Northwestern students are about building a greener campus.

"They're bright, and they understand these global issues, and they're also very politically and socially motivated," Whittier said. "So I'm not surprised sustainability has come up as such a big issue and that we get a lot of passion and support behind it."

The divesture campaign is also in line with other recent efforts led by the university to become a more sustainable university, such as the creation of the Northwestern Sustainability Council that was announced last month. The council's main goal is to create a long-term sustainability plan for Northwestern.

Northwestern isn't the only Chicago college working hard to build a greener future for its campus. Last month, Columbia College expanded its compost program on campus with the help of a $5,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The grant will assist Columbia in reaching its goal of diverting 13 tons of food scrap waste from landfills in 2012-2013.

DePaul University spokesman John Holden said the school is making a big push to make its buildings more energy efficient. At the end of last year, Roosevelt University partnered with green startup Ghabit (short for Green Habit), which offers students a reward system for sustainable habits through a smartphone application. Students can use their phones to track "green habits" like biking or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. University of Illinois at Chicago is also trying to reframe its goals for sustainability with a program called Sustainability Strategic Thinking, the goal of which is to engage the entire school to view the university's future of sustainability "in areas beyond ecology and the environment," according to the UIC Office of Sustainability.

Loyola University is working toward a divestment campaign similar to Northwestern's as its Student Environmental Alliance researches how the university can begin divesting from fossil fuels. One of Loyola's most significant green achievements to date was its "UnCap Loyola" campaign that led to the complete phasing out of the sale of bottled water at the university starting in March of last year.

SEA co-president Alexandra Vecchio, a 21-year-old Loyola senior, said ending the sale of bottled water at Loyola was as much of a social justice issue as it was an environmental issue.

"The biggest obstacle we faced was getting the Loyola community to understand that it was not about the plastic bottles. We were concerned with the fact that bottled water is privatized water and that is a major social justice issue," Vecchio said.

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