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Campaigners deliver 169 letters to vice chancellor demanding divestment

The letters addressed the "hypocrisy" of the University investing in fossil fuels while producing cutting-edge science on climate change

Members of the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) met with vice chancellor Louise Richardson yesterday to hand over 169 letters demanding University-wide divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

During the meeting, OCJC members read excerpts of letters aloud and updated the vice chancellor on the divestment campaign within the University, which has seen twelve colleges pass divestment motions since November.

The push for divestment follows revelations from the Paradise Papers leaked last November, which revealed that Oxford University Endowment Management (OUem) and several Oxford colleges have been investing in oil extraction and exploration.

Pascale Gourdeau, a DPhil in computer science at Trinity, Caitlin Prentice, a DPhil in education at St Anne’s, and Elana Sulakshana, an MSc in geography at St Edmund Hall, were all present at the meeting.

Sulakshana told Cherwell: “We entered the meeting with two goals: the first was that we wanted to update the vice chancellor on the state of divestment and the divestment campaign, because from previous interactions she had expressed that she was unaware that there was a campaign still going and she thought that the University had divested already.”

“These letters spoke to themes such as the effects climate change is having on people’s homes and communities, the hypocrisy of the University investing in fossil fuels while producing cutting-edge science on climate change, and economic research on the way in which fossil fuel investments are stranded assets,” Sulakshana said.

“There is a hypocrisy between what we are learning in the classroom and how the University is making money.”

Gourdeau told Cherwell: “The vice chancellor said that she was as concerned as us about climate change, but ultimately what it came down to was that we disagree on how the University should act.

“She mentioned a lot of green projects, such as green buildings and research. She thinks that those things should happen, but that divestment should not for various reasons.

“First, she said that she can’t tell Oxford University Endowment Management (OUem) what to do. However, she also pointed out that she has influence on OUem’s decisions, so we think she should use that influence to support the concerns of students and faculty members.

“She also said that it wouldn’t make financial sense, because the University’s endowment is so much bigger than all the other universities that have divested in the past. This has not been entirely true for lots of universities and institutions, for example the University of Edinburgh, University of California, the City of New York. So it is totally feasible.

Gourdeau said that the vice chancellor didn’t “see how divestment would be effective in fighting climate change. She didn’t see that divestment would be worth loosing, for example, scholarship money from fossil fuel companies.

“I think overall, at least on my end, it felt a bit frustrating that we didn’t have time to reply and that she didn’t see the urgency surrounding acting on fossil fuel divestment in the same way as us.”

The vice chancellor has pledged to take actions addressing OCJC’s concerns.

Gourdeau said: “She said that she would actually read all the letters, that she would bring them to the Socially Responsible Investment Review Committee (SRIRC), and that she would bring up divestment at the next OUem investment meeting.

“I think that the discussion ended with us agreeing on both sides that this is not the end of the discussion. At least on our end, we made it clear that the pressure would also come from the colleges.”

Peck added: “We are committed to continuing this conversation, and she knows that. We’ll now be strategising how to respond, and putting the concerns she came up with to the test of our community.

“This community has answers for her, and we didn’t quite get to tell her today – but we’ll make it quite clear in the future.”

The letter delivery follows divestment rallies at Cambridge University earlier this week.

The delivery also represents the first formal action taken under the campaign’s revamped strategy, which was changed after the University’s disappointing response to divestment efforts in 2014 and 2015.

Lady Margaret Hall MCR Green Rep and OCJC member Julia Peck, who recently published a paper outlining strategies colleges may adopt in order to divest its portfolio from fossil fuels, told Cherwell: “What was so troubling about what happened with divestment in 2015 is that Council was ready to approve the plan and timeline to remove fossil fuel investments that OUem had drawn up based on student recommendations, but then the vice chancellor at the time, Andrew Hamilton, stepped in and prevented that motion from being passed in Council.

“He basically subverted a democratic process here at the University. That democratic process started with the students and the Fossil Free Campaign, who collected thousands of alumni signatures, thousands of faculty signatures, and wrote an open letter that finally reached Council.

“There was a clear democratic mandate that called for fossil fuel divestment [in 2015], and the fact that it wasn’t able to pass was pretty devastating.

“We see new leadership in the Clarendon Building, and we’re hoping to hear from her directly about how she can undo that injustice and actually heed the call that’s been alive since 2014.”

However, Peck worried about Richardson’s awareness of the divestment issue. She said: “At a 2016 conference here in Oxford about the Paris Climate Agreement, Louise Richardson said that as vice chancellor she does see the University’s responsibility to take steps towards drastic reduction of carbon, including – and I directly quote – ‘in the stewardship of the endowment.’

“But then when we asked her at the Oxford Union why she hasn’t done that yet, she said ‘but we already divested,’ which showed a massive misunderstanding at best, ignorance at worst conception of what happened here.”

The vice chancellor’s Office and the University have been contacted for comment.

This article has been altered to clarify that there was not violence at a rally by the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society. A separate reference to a ‘bin fire’ at the event failed to mention that it was not started by the group and was in fact a protest against the rally.

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