Divestment activists rally amid Sustainability Celebration

Demonstrators opposed to the Portland State University Foundation’s investments in fossil fuel received a reception they did not expect last Thursday when they crashed the PSU Sustainability Celebration in silent protest. University patrons greeted them with a round of applause.

Activist student group

Divest PSU gathered a crowd of about two dozen supporters on the Park Blocks ahead of the so-named Event X action. The group’s leaders rallied onlookers with chants and demands for action on university investments before a planned silent interruption of the Sustainability Celebration.

Attended by local leaders such as PSU President Wim Wiewel and Mayor Charlie Hales, the Sustainability Celebration is an annual event featuring issues of sustainability and environmental justice. The demonstrators hoped to use the event’s theme to draw attention to investments by the PSU Foundation, which controls donations and gifts that go to support the university. According to Paul Carey, PSU Foundation Chief Financial Officer and Associate Vice President to Development, 1.5 percent of investments within the endowment portfolio are invested in fossil fuel-related companies. Attendees stood up and applauded the demonstrators’ entrance in a show of support. The activists maintained their silent action, raising fists and signs before the crowd, before leaving in single file.

“It was beautiful,” said Linda Hoppes, a Divest PSU organizer. “I think it was really powerful, and I think it got a lot of people’s attention.”

The Event X action was meant to pressure President Wiewel, who has a seat on the PSU Foundation board which includes 27 trustees and three ex-oficio members.

Wiewel has no direct decision-making power within the PSU Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that operates independently of direct university decisions.

Divest member Elyse Cogburn pointed to the president’s stature within the university in an interview before the event, arguing that he could influence future interactions with the Foundation through a clear show of support for divestment.

“He is the face of PSU,” Cogburn said. “He’s our president. He may not do a lot of the inner workings behind the scenes, but he’s the one people see when they [look at] PSU. To see him making a really bold stance in support of divestment would be really great.”

Wiewel did not make a personal endorsement of divestment as a matter of Foundation policy during a recent Student Media press conference. He noted that it is the role of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. to determine the best course of action for the institution. He also pointed to his request earlier in the year that the Foundation investigate what sort of action the Foundation should take in regard to the divestment question. He said that he did not want to ignore the issue.”

“They listen to us, but I need to get [PSU Foundation’s] actual report to even decide where I land, so we’ll see what happens,” Wiewel said.

Wiewel was also among those to greet the divestment protesters with open arms during the Sustainability Celebration. He spoke to several demonstrators after the silent protest, including Divest supporter and post-baccalaureate student Sara Swetzoff.

She said she appreciated the chance to speak with him, acknowledging that he wanted to carry the conversation forward. She remained critical of the university’s lack of movement, and an undue burden she felt being placed on student activists.

“I think it’s kind of unfair to put all of the onus on Divest PSU, because they’re students,” she said. “I think the administration has a responsibility to set that up and streamline…student participation in all aspects of university governance.”

Swetzoff also argued that divestment could benefit the university’s ties to Portland values, given PSU’s reputation for the environmental sciences and sustainability.

“I think that would be a great way to support Portland’s green mission,” Swetzoff said. “It ties us more into the ethos of the locals supporting the local, as well as divesting us from fossil fuels.”