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Northland College finalizes divestment from fossil fuels

The college no longer has fossil fuel-related investments.

Wakefield Hall (right) and Wheeler Hall on the campus of Northland College in Ashland. (File / News Tribune)
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Northland College has accomplished its goal of cutting financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.

In 2017, the college's board of trustees voted to divest all the school's endowment funds from fossil fuel-related investments. About $823,000 of the college's $28 million endowment was invested in fossil fuels, which the vast majority of scientists say has caused global climate change.

The student-led effort had been years in the making, said Northland alum and former student body president Kinsey Neal. She was one of four students who presented their case for disinvestment to the board of trustees in 2017.

"This conversation had been going on on campus for generations of students," Neal said. "My friends and I worked very hard on this and were really intentional about selling it to the board, but it was really a community effort."

As a first-year student at Northland, Neal joined a group that was working on divestment. Becoming student body president opened a network of access to the board and administration, so she took a special aim at making the long-held student dream become a reality.


The board of trustees voted to divest all investments in the fossil fuel industry within five years, but did so in less than three.

Trustee Mike Fiorio, a retired partner of Fiorio Wealth Advisors, said he anticipates little or no long-term impact on returns for the school.

Northland's move is part of a greater international trend.

In 2017, 746 institutions around the world had committed to divesting in fossil fuels, representing more than $5.2 trillion, according to 350, an organization working to end the use of fossil fuels. In September, the movement to divest from fossil fuels crossed the $11 trillion marker with 1,110 institutions participating.

Carbon neutral by 2030

The college is also working on cutting its ties to fossil fuels as an energy source. The college's goal, originally set in 2010, is to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. That means whatever the college can't eliminate in carbon dioxide emission it will offset, by planting trees for example.

Because opportunities for carbon offsets are evolving, Kate Ullman, director of sustainability at Northland, said the offsets the college chooses to use won't likely be known until later on down the line.

Because the region doesn't have the infrastructure to support a full supply of electric vehicles, Ullman said transportation fuel is something the school likely won't be able to fully eliminate.

Currently, the college is reviewing its energy plan to assess progress and re-prioritize. So far, the college has invested in renewable energy infrastructure such as solar panels, a wind turbine and two buildings using geothermal energy. The college's student government, Northland College Student Association, has also invested in Xcel Energy's solar gardens.


Similar to the carbon neutrality plan, Ullman cited the college's divestment from fossil fuels as another way the institution can make a difference.

"Across the country, different colleges and universities, but also individuals have started to realize that money that they invest signifies something about the value that they're supporting," Ullman said. "From all different scales, people are considering how they can move their investment dollars toward businesses or industries that they support in a more holistic way rather than pursuing only what is the highest return."

Ullman said it's been inspiring to see students lead the action.

This article was updated at 12:38 p.m. Wednesday to better clarify the region's lack of infrastructure to support electric vehicles. The article was originally published at 11:43 p.m. Tuesday.

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