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St John’s alumni threaten to withhold donations

Alumni of St John’s College, Oxford, are threatening to withhold donations unless it commits to divestment from fossil fuel companies.

This follows last week’s events which saw students occupying St John’s front quad to protest against investments.

The five-day student occupation ended with organisers promising to “continue to hold the College, and the University as a whole to account.”

Hundreds of graduates have signed a letter accusing the college of “dismissing” the action taken by students, urging them to “cut all ties” with fossil fuel companies.

St John’s was further criticised for its treatment of student protesters during their occupation.

The letter, sent to the Principal Bursar Professor Parker and the college’s President, says: “In light of your troubling response to this peaceful occupation and continued refusal to align your endowment with climate justice, as alumni and alumnae, we cannot in good faith donate to St John’s, the University of Oxford, or any college which has not made a divestment commitment at this time.”

The wealthiest college in Oxford, St John’s currently invests around £8 million in BP and Shell, two of the corporations most guilty for worldwide ecological destruction.

Both the protest and the letter come shortly after Balliol College committed to divesting from fossil fuels “as far and as fast as is practicable.”

Balliol joins four other colleges (Wadham, Wolfson, Oriel and St Hil- da’s), as well as over 70 UK universities in divesting.

Julia Peck, who initiated the alumni open letter, told the Independent: “I think this occupation will be a watershed moment. It comes at a really crucial time when student campaigners are actively taking divestment proposals to the highest decision- making bodies of the university.

“This is a moment where Oxford leadership have clearly seen the amount of public support among the students, the faculty and the alumni. This kind of thing has never happened at an Oxford college.

“Now the heat has really turned up on the colleges who have their own endowments. They can make just as strong a statement about aligning themselves as climate justice as can the university.”

Direct Action for Divestment (DAD), a large group of students from across Oxford University, set up camp last Wednesday in protest of St John’s College’s investments in fossil fuel companies. Their exit statement read: “During our occupation, the College disabled the keys of St. John’s students seen to be assisting the protest. They have prevented us from bringing food, hot water, and blankets in from outside, and even responded to our demands with trivialising suggestions that the College switch off the central heating.

“In contrast to the antagonism from College administration, Oxford has united in a show of heartening support and solidarity. Students inside the College have brought food and hot tea; tutors have made our case to senior College officials; alumni have spoken out in support of our cause. We would like to express our deepest gratitude, and crucially to thank college staff for their understanding. This gives us confidence that the discussions around divestment will continue after we leave, on every level of college life.”

“Yesterday, our representatives met with President Maggie Snowl- ing to discuss our demands. The President acknowledged that our occupation had brought divestment to the top of the agenda, and we are pleased to say that she has promised to make some small steps in the right direction. She agreed to increase student representation in their Ethical Investments Working Group, and will no longer invite BP and Shell employees to advise on College investment practices. Finally, she said that the working group plans to put forth a recommendation to the Governing Body by the end of the year – two years after St. John’s students first raised divestment.”

“In our five-day occupation, we brought divestment to the forefront of people’s minds. We have reignited a conversation not only within St. John’s, but across the University. We will continue to hold the College accountable throughout the divestment process. We are glad that the College has recognised the importance of this issue. We hope that the College will continue to make this a priority. If they do not, we will be back,” they added.

St John’s College said in a statement on their website: ” Thank you for the open letter concerning the recent demonstration in the Front Quad of St John’s College.

“In response we would like to tell you what we are currently doing with regard to the College’s investments, to detail the actions we are taking to lessen the environmental impact of the College’s activities, and to explain what we did in relation to last week’s demonstration.

“You will appreciate that we have received a lot of correspondence following on from last week’s protest at St John’s and, it is fair to say, the views expressed have been varied on both sides of the debate.

“We can assure you that, like many of our students, the President, Bursar and Fellows of St. John’s are deeply concerned about climate change – indeed some are directly working on aspects of the subject.

“The College is conscious of many calls for divestment. We are, of course, asking ourselves how to move in the right direction and to identify the resources necessary to bring about change. We hope to be able to apply those skills that we do have to ensuring incremental progress towards a better future for the College, its students and, we hope, the wider community.

“We set up a working group in autumn 2019 made up of Fellows and students. This is conducting a wide-ranging review of current policies, sustainable finance and ‘intentional’ investing – how trustees might reflect their charity’s aims and values in their investment policies.

“This work will, of course, continue and we expect to bring recommendations to Governing Body by the end of the academic year. The College is working with all the colleges in the University of Oxford on sustainability.

“We take environmental concerns seriously, both in the refurbishment of our existing buildings (the oldest of which date back to the fifteenth century) and in the planning of new buildings, such as our newly opened Study Centre.”

” The College is in a similar position to much of the UK and many other countries in that it is not immediately possible to move all the College’s buildings to combustion-free sources of heating. There are other changes that the College is implementing which will make important incremental carbon-reducing contributions, notably the replacement of existing gas boilers by modern energy efficient boilers, better glazing and better insulation all contribute. These are routine steps in every building or maintenance project and the College is very grateful to the workforce in planning and implementing these improvements.

“It is absolutely crucial in our view, that divestment does not become a divisive debate. Responding specifically to your comments about the College’s approach last week, the majority of the demonstrators who occupied the College were not members of St John’s and could not be in a position to speak on behalf of the entire student community of the College. We would like to assure you that the protesters were treated courteously whilst camping in Front Quad and that the only security measures taken were to protect the safety of College and its members.”

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