LOS ALTOS HILLS -- A community college district in California has become the first in the nation to take a stand against the fossil-fuel industry, saying it will no longer invest in any of the 200 biggest companies in the field.
Behind the unanimous Wednesday night vote by the Foothill-De Anza Foundation was a student campaign that grew out of a political science class project. The organizers -- backed by their colleges' student senates -- argued it was the right thing to do for a college district whose mission statement includes environmental stewardship.
"We said, 'If that's something that we value, let's put that to action. Let's put our money where our mouth is,'" said De Anza student Karla Navarro, one of the lead organizers. "Once they voted and it passed, it was a sigh of relief."
A movement to weaken the political and economic power of fossil-fuel companies has swept college campuses in the last year. Students at more than 300 campuses -- including Stanford and throughout the University of California system -- have begun lobbying their boards to take action.
"I think this is one of the moral issues of our generation," said Sophie Harrison, a Stanford student and organizer.
So far, it's been a tough sell. According to 350.org, the environmental justice group behind the movement, only a handful of colleges or universities in the United States have made such commitments. San Francisco State University is one of them.
"The primary purpose of the university's investments are to make as much money as we can for the university, for California and for its employees," said Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the UC Office of the President.
UC withdrew its investments in the tobacco industry in 2001 and has also divested from firearm companies and apartheid South Africa, Klein said, but no such plans are being considered for fossil fuels.
Harvard University's president, Drew Faust, wrote a statement this month explaining her opposition to divestment, saying she felt it would have a negligible financial impact on the industry and that colleges shouldn't use their endowments as political tools.
But proponents of divestment take issue with such arguments. They say investments are inherently political and that the purpose of cutting financial ties is to marginalize these powerful companies, not to cripple them economically. It "alienates an industry that holds an immense amount of influence over our political system," said UC Berkeley senior Ophir Bruck.
Severing such ties is easier for institutions with small endowments, such as Foothill-De Anza, than for those with multibillion-dollar endowments, such as Stanford and UC. Fossil-fuel companies account for just 1 percent of the Foothill-De Anza Foundation's $33 million portfolio, said the foundation's treasurer, Martin Neiman. The foundation will divest its individual fossil-fuel holdings by the end of June, according to the resolution.
Bruck and Harrison said they were encouraged by Foothill-De Anza's action. "I think every school divesting is a big win," Bruck said. "But we need to see some of the bigger schools take that step."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.