Coinciding with the last five days of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Divest and Invest — the student campaign advocating for the University to divest from fossil fuel companies — hosted a Pledge to The Planet Climate Action Week to raise awareness about the University’s role in combatting climate change this past week. Similarly, during his last fireside chat of the semester, University President Mark Schlissel answered questions about his stance on fossil fuel divestment. While Schlissel maintained that the University is committed to sustainability, he believes fossil fuel divestment is ineffective and a “mostly symbolic action.” One day later, Schlissel released a statement on the University’s role in addressing climate change, sustainability and the possibility of divestment.
Though his concerns are realistic, Schlissel’s logic regarding fossil fuel divestment is flawed. Divestment from fossil fuels is more than symbolic; it’s a tangible action that demonstrates the University isn’t complicit in an industry that’s destroying our environment. Schlissel must reconsider his statement and request that the University’s Board of Regents form a committe dedicated to investigating the University's investments in fossil fuel companies — which is what the Divest and Invest campaign is currently advocating for.
There is a three-pronged requirement for the University to form this committee: there must be a consensus on campus for the issue, the industry or issue is antithetical to the University’s core values and the organizations being examined are uniquely responsible for the issue at hand. Divestment from fossil fuel companies fits all three criteria.
According to the Divest and Invest Campaign, the University has about $1 billion of its $10 billion endowment invested in fossil fuels. However, the group only seeks to have the University investigate coal and oil investments, providing a gradual and reasonable way for the University to divest from fossil fuels.
In March, Central Student Government passed a resolution supporting the divestment campaign. The Senate Assembly also voiced its support for the resolution just last month. Agreement on the issue of climate change by both students and faculty demonstrates the urgency of the issue, which the University should not ignore.
Other universities have already taken steps to reduce their financial investment in fossil fuels. Three months ago, the University of California system sold the $200 million it had invested in coal and oil sands. Stanford University, Georgetown University and Syracuse University have pledged to divest from coal mining companies. Other schools, such as New York City’s New School, have not only dropped fossil fuel stocks from their investment portfolios, but have also reshaped curricula to promote sustainability and combat climate change. About 40 universities have made such commitments, and the list of corporations and financial institutions that have fully or partially divested is large and growing fast.
However, the University has yet to make a comprehensive study of divestment that would weigh its commitment to sustainability against the effect divestment might have on its endowment. No large research university can afford to mismanage its endowment, nor can it fail to examine its options when it can clearly identify investments that stand opposed to its professed values. Indeed, the Board of Regents has dropped socially irresponsible investments twice in the past, divesting itself of tobacco companies and entities associated with apartheid in South Africa.
Schlissel objects to divestment in part because it would not reduce carbon emissions. But neither of the University’s previous divestments were expected to solve their associated problems. They were steps taken on principle in the interest of the global community and human life. For reasons that are impossible to ignore, the board must form a committee to research the possibility of divestment from fossil fuel companies, and then make its findings public.