Ad Majorem Petroleum Gloriam: Why is Creighton acting against students’ climate referendum?

By the Triumph Editors

In the Spring of 2019, a number of students at Creighton organized in hopes to pressure the University to divest its endowment—donated funds which are invested in a number of sectors—from fossil fuels. The first thrust began with a small group of students, who, after being told they needed ‘the numbers’ to write legislation around divestment, arranged a meeting with Creighton’s Associate Vice President for Finance, John Jesse. When they asked what percentage of Creighton’s endowment is invested in the top two hundred carbon emitting companies, the students were denied the information, effectively barring them from moving foreward with the legislation.

As a response, this small group mobilized their classmates, and began to organize a demonstration in hopes to pressure the administration for the numbers they needed. During this demonstration, with over two hundred students attending, a leader read the movement’s demands and reminded the University of its professed values. After generating attention throughout the University, and from the press, an assistant to the president arranged a meeting with students involved in the movement. At this meeting the president of Creighton University, Father Daniel Hendrickson, provided a number to the leaders of the divestment movement: as is currently known, 10.6% of Creighton’s endowment is currently in direct-extraction fossil fuel companies, with 2% of those in the Carbon Underground 200, or the global top two hundred carbon emitting companies.

In the Fall of 2019, the movement then began pushing legislation through student government. A number of students then worked on a proposal which called for the University to implement a 2% divestment by 2025. The legislation read that rest of the 10.6% total be divested by the time the university is carbon neutral, which according to Creighton’s 2013 climate action plan, is a goal is set for 2050. The legislation would also put a halt to any new investments into fossil fuel. The student body would then vote to approve or deny this proposal in a referendum. The proposal successfully worked its way through student government; As the student body voted for their representatives in their yearly election, they were given the choice to approve or deny this legislation. Students of the movement then created a video, expressing the necessity for divestment in light of a global climate crisis.

A few days before the referendum was set to occur, however, four of the leaders of the student movement received cease and desist letters from the University. The letters claimed that the movement had been inappropriately using the word ‘Creighton’, apparently making shirts as well as said video appear as an officially endorsed Creighton University statement. It then demanded the students immediately stop using Creighton’s name and facilities. This was in obvious contradiction to the fact that, previously, the Student Leadership and Involvement Center at Creighton had approved signs, demonstrations, et cetera, using the names like ‘Divest Creighton’ and ‘Creighton Climate Movement’. Regardless, anyone watching the video could likely conclude for themselves that this was not an official communication from the University. This letter also suggested that these student leaders make an official student organization for their movement, a sixteen-month process that would guarantee the exit of a number of student leaders (being in their last year) by time of potential approval. It would also provide the University with a great deal of oversite on the movement, as well as an ability to approve or deny a number of their operations. Interpreted generously, the letter appeared to be a way of drastically slowing the movement, and effectively, it was an attempt to intimidate the student leaders.

A number of days later, the student body preceded to vote on the referendum. With record turnout, 2438 students voted on the legislation, polling at an 85.8 percent majority in support of the divestment legislation. (For comparison, that majority of around 2090 students was greater than the total 1800 votes in the prior year’s election.) A day later, the office of the president sent an email to the entirety of the student body, faculty, and staff. In the announcement, Hendrickson pontificated that as a “…Jesuit and Catholic [institution], [Creighton’s] mission impels us to provide ethical perspectives and engage tools of discernment for dealing with an increasingly complex world. Perhaps nothing is as complex – or as consequential – as global climate change.” He then, however, wrote rather decisively that though there “…are compelling arguments on both sides of the divestment issue, as well as confusions…[Creighton University has] decided at this time that implementing a policy of total divestment from fossil fuel companies as outlined in the recent nonbinding student referendum does not align with our goal of a properly diversified endowment, and could negatively impact Creighton and our students…” giving the reason that it “…is important that the University follows a disciplined investment approach in its endowment, with a broad diversification strategy designed to achieve long-term returns.” He then went on to cite a number of less threatening sustainability efforts the University is involved in. In this email, however, notice how Hendrickson, whether intentionally or not, mispresents the referendum proposal as entailing “total divestment” immediately. To reiterate, in actuality the referendum called for a conservative 2% divestment by 2025, and total divestment by 2050. The students wrote this proposal with a reasonable acknowledgement of all of the complexity that divestment entails. The student newspaper, The Creightonian, then repeated this misrepresentation.

What is behind this pronounced disconnect between the university administration and the will of the student body? The Jesuit order, well known for the development of and involvement with Liberation Theology, might be expected to join the fight for climate justice. Jesuit theology also emphasizes the concept of the ‘preferential option for the poor’, a pillar of Catholic Social Teaching that demands solidarity and compassion for the least well off; as climate crisis is most severely affecting the working classes of the world, shouldn’t a Jesuit University be bothered to care? Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, published a papal encyclical—an extended document concerning Catholic doctrines—in 2015 titled Laudato si’, which emphasized the importance to act against environmental degradation and climate change. The University itself often emphasizes tenants of social engagement and an ethic of ‘caring for our common home’. There seems to be an obvious element of hypocrisy in the university administration’s decision to reject such a conservative divestment measure given the sympathetic orientation of its religious affiliations and its own principles, but whether or not Creighton acts in good faith is out of our control. There are a number of ways that we can understand the University’s motivations for deciding not to divest.

“The Jesuit order, well known for the development of and involvement with Liberation Theology, might be expected to join the fight for climate justice.”

In the letter Hendrickson sent out, he explicitly referenced Creighton University’s board of Trustees, writing that he has asked “…the Investment Subcommittee of the Board of Trustees to evaluate and consider investments in companies developing alternative energy sources or technologies that reduce carbon emissions…” and continued to write that it “…should be noted that many of the companies that would be divested [sic] are ones leading efforts in developing renewable energy alternatives. This review will happen at our next Board meeting.” Clearly, then, Creighton’s board of trustees exerts no small amount of force in making such a decision. Who exactly sits on this Investment Subcommittee is not public information, but we can predict behavior using information from board members we do know about. (So-called ‘interlocking-directorates’, or board membership across multiple institutions, have proven to be an effective way for a small group to wield outsized power.)

For instance, Jerry K. Crouse not only sits on the board at Creighton, but is also on the board of the energy company Tenaska. Tenaska, one of the 50 largest private U.S. companies, with a gross operating revenue of $11.9 billion, markets heavily in natural gas. Natural gas can produce only 60% of the CO2 emissions as burning coal does, but this is only when burned in the newest facilities. Additionally, the drilling and extraction process produces methane, which traps heat at a strength 32 times that of CO2. Another board member, Michael R. McCarthy, also sits on the board of Union Pacific. While Union Pacific boasts of low emissions, they still transported 238,800 carloads of coal in the second quarter of 2019, and 263,900 carloads in the third. Currently, coal still accounts for 70% of their energy volume. An additional 8% percent of that volume is in frac sands, and an undeclared amount of the remaining 22% percent is made up of petroleum, liquified petroleum gas, and renewables. Much of their revenue stream, then, relies on carrying a fossil fuel. Many board members are also involved with their own investment strategies, McCarthy in McCarthy Capital Corporation and McCarthy Wealth LLC, for example, along with fellow board members Bruce Lauritzen in Blair Holdings and Danes Holdings, and Scott C. Heider in Chartwell Capital. The degree to which these firms are involved in fossil fuels, we can’t say, but as fossil fuels make up some of the most valuable commodity markets, there may indeed be a lot personally at stake for these board members.

“…as fossil fuels make up some of the most valuable commodity markets, there may indeed be a lot personally at stake for these board members.”

Most notorious, however, is the University’s connection to Koch Industries. Koch industries is the second largest private company in the U.S., with annual revenues of around $110 billion. They deal heavily in petroleum and petroleum refinement, as do their numerous subsidiary companies. Koch industries is also the largest landowner in the Athabasca oil sands. They have also created a vast network of ultra-conservative think tanks, aimed at infiltrating universities, as detailed in Jane Mayer’s 2017 book “Dark Money”. The board member most implicated in these dealings is Gail Werner-Robertson, who sits as board chair at the Platte Institute, who’s self-professed policy aims are “founded on the belief that the freedom and quality of life that Nebraskans deserve is best achieved by promoting free-enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.” Connections between the Platte Institute and other right-wing think tanks ultimately lead back to funding from the State Policy Network, an organization which Charles Koch himself sits on the board of. Most obviously, however, the construction of Creighton University’s Heider College of Business was funded with a 4.5-million-dollar pledge, half of which came from Omaha trucking magnate C.L. Werner, and half of which came from the Charles Koch foundation.

Creighton University’s tight grip on fossil fuel, regardless of its principles and the will of its student body, should begin to make sense in light of these connections; the vested interests of the board members and the powers-that-be feel deeply threatened at the thought of divestment from fossil fuels. Even coverage of the movement within the Omaha World Herald is complicit with this resistance to divestment, as, unsurprisingly, they have their own interests to defend. Three recent articles covering the movement also misrepresented Creighton’s endowment and the student’s referendum. All three of these pieces currently use the following wording: “By 2025, the referendum said, the university should divest the 2% of its endowment that is in the top 200 carbon-emitting companies in that industry.” At best, this wording denies the reader the actual amount of Creighton’s endowment involved with fossil fuels. At worst, it reads that only 2% of Creighton’s endowment, a would-be number of $11,400,000, is invested in the fossil fuel industry, rather than the actual 10.6%, totaling to $60,420,000.

One of the pieces, an editorial titled “Creighton President Offers Responsible, Multi-Pronged Strategy”, in addition to the previous misrepresentation, also paralleled the distortions in Hendrickson’s aforementioned email response; This editorial was initially published with the description of the student referendum as “[calling] for the divestment, by 2025, of the 10.6% of the university endowment funds currently invested in the fossil fuel industry.” After five hours of students’ phone and email complaints, the editorial was changed online to read “divestment, by 2025, of the 2% of the university endowment funds…” but even then, not without distaste from the opinion writer. It then went on to commend Hendrickson, reading that he “…deserves credit for how he addressed the matter. He showed appropriate leadership by underscoring the need for careful management of the university’s finances.” It should also be noted that this writer remains anonymous, the article being attributed only to the ‘Editorial staff’.

This misinformation initially sowed by Fr. Hendrickson’s email response should suggest some of the interests involved. This support, though, should be no surprise, as Creighton University is one of the largest advertisers within the World Herald. (However, the blatant misrepresentation of the endowment certainly takes this support to a new level.) It should also be important to note that Warren Buffett, owner of the Omaha World Herald, has invested $1.1 billion dollars in the Canadian tar sands company Suncor. Additionally, his company Berkshire Hathaway Energy has also been aggressively working to destroy solar energy efforts.

Facing down this litany of wealthy and powerful people, and the oil-drenched companies they are connected to, the Creighton Climate Movement certainly has their work cut out for them. This should in no way appear pessimistic— in fact, the only way to win is to know your enemy. Student activists at Creighton now know their enemy: the members of Creighton’s board of trustees that are acting to preserve their individual financial interests in contradiction with their universities own principles and the will of its student body, and compromised news organizations like the World-Herald that cover for them. This knowledge can serve to embolden the movement and equip them with a new approach to fight with, and one day soon, to succeed in divesting Creighton University’s endowment completely from fossil fuels.

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