Divest from fossil fuels and private prisons, student coalition urges USF

VIA Tampa Bay Times | By Claire McNeill 

TAMPA — As University of South Florida students cast votes in student elections this week, they’ll also be deciding on a referendum that would urge the university to “divest from fossil fuels, private prisons and companies complicit in human rights violations.”

The referendum is non-binding but would send a renewed message to USF leaders that students care about how the university invests its dollars. It calls for the formation of a “socially responsible investment committee” to oversee a divestment effort.

“As a university, we can clear our conscience and help not only the environment that we live in, but also the people,” said Hafsa Quraishi, a sophomore from Jacksonville involved in the push. “A bunch of universities have already successfully divested from controversial companies like this, and they’re still at the top of their game.”

If the divestment effort sounds familiar, it’s because students have waged similar battles several times in recent years.

In 2013, a similar referendum passed easily, but student government leaders swiftly discredited the results, apologizing to the student body for apparent inconsistencies with university and state policies. The next year, thousands of students signed a divestment petition organized by USF Students for Justice in Palestine.

At that point, the USF Foundation’s Investment Committee decided to put the issue on a meeting agenda, university spokesman Adam Freeman said. The committee passed a resolution and issued a statement saying that the USF Foundation’s investments “will continue to be guided by its mission, fiduciary responsibilities and state or federal law or regulation,” and that no changes would be made because of outside requests.

“Since the issue was already considered and voted on by the USF Foundation, it will not be revisited at future meetings,” Freeman said.

The university’s recent financial reports don’t detail specific investments, but students said they want a commitment from USF leaders to steer clear of companies they deem ethically unsound.

Ahmad Hussam, a recent graduate, was a part of the original divestment campaign four years ago.

“The university has always attempted to stand in the way of students voicing their opinions about investment,” he said. “We appreciate that the university would do what it can to make more money for the school. It goes to research, it goes to hiring faculty, but there’s a lack of transparency, and that’s concerning.”

Though private prisons, fossil fuels and war crimes may seem disparate, anthropology Master’s student Justin Winn said they share a deep connection. U.S. military action in the Middle East has often involved oil, and the military-industrial complex extends to U.S. prisons, he said, “crashing down on the community among us.”

Divestment efforts have cropped up on college campuses across the world in recent years, with success at Syracuse, Yale, the University of Maryland and the University of Hawaii, among others.

But just getting the referendum on USF’s ballot took a battle. Student Supreme Court leaders held last-minute meetings debating the rules of referendums.

“It seems like they were really trying to fish for something to shut it down,” Winn said.

Voting results will be announced March 3. The student coalition plans to focus on faculty and alumni support next.

“We want to raise money for the university, and we can do it in an ethical and moral way,” Hussam said. “We don’t have to invest in the oppression of other people.”

More about USF’s investment policy and public records can be found here. The university employs investment managers, rather than selecting individual stocks. Because of the USF Foundation’s classification under Florida laws, many relevant records are shielded from disclosure.

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