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During the virtual 2021 spring commencement on May 1, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel concluded his remarks by stressing the effective nature of how students responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emphatically, Schlissel declared the worldwide response to climate change must be similar in nature and stature.
Schlissel challenged the graduating class to use the knowledge and experience they gained at U-M to address the climate crisis in the same way they responded to the pandemic. He highlighted how student climate activism has already made a difference in contributing to the Board of Regents’ recent decision to discontinue the University’s investments in fossil fuel companies.
“You can transform the world with your Michigan passport, as many of you are already doing,” Schlissel said to the Class of 2021. “Your advocacy and intellectual achievements have informed and inspired U-M’s new approach to our endowment. We are committed to achieving a net-zero endowment and discontinuing investments associated with greenhouse gases and fossil fuels.”
Schlissel’s statement demonstrated a noteworthy departure from the administration’s consistent opposition to adjusting its investment portfolio. The University has traditionally taken the stance that the policy around its endowed funds should only be revised when the investments may not yield an adequate financial return or are incompatible with U-M’s mission, not based on community input.
The University has only fully divested from particular organizations twice. In 1978, the University sold its holdings in corporations associated with apartheid in South Africa, and in 2000, U-M sold its investments in tobacco companies. In a Dec. 2015 statement, Schlissel explained the University divested these holdings because they were investments in “immoral” or “unethical” practices with “no redeeming social value”. The same, he argued at the time, could not be said for investments in the fossil fuel industry, because fossil fuels were necessary to power campus operations and those companies were also developing renewable energy technology.
This argument came into question when the Board of Regents froze the University’s fossil fuel investments during the Feb. 2020 Regents meeting and announced an investigation of the investment policy. Over a year later, at the March 2021 meeting when the Board announced the University would disinvest from fossil fuels, administrators said student activists had played a role in shaping their new policy surrounding endowed funds in fossil fuels, a noteworthy contrast from previously expressed opposition.
In response to Schlissel’s description of the University’s commitment to sustainability and clean energy in his commencement address, Amytess Girgis, LSA class of 2021 and activist with One University, tweeted about the perceived hypocrisy when comparing Schlissel’s previous opposition to fossil fuel divestment to his current support for the revised investment policy.
Activists have argued for their views to be heard and for the endowment to meet the needs of the climate crisis. The University’s recent engagement with stakeholders appears to differ from the approach of an independent endowment that it applied to fossil fuel investments for nearly a decade.
‘I don’t believe in divestment’: A historical opposition to revising U-M investment policy
In 2005, Timothy Slottow, the University’s Chief Financial Officer at the time, issued a statement outlining the University’s policies regarding investments and the endowment. According to Slottow’s statement, the University’s general outlook was to avoid divestment for “political” or social reasons, even if the University was under public pressure to disassociate itself from an industry.
“Our longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return,” Slottow wrote.
In his statement, Slottow formally outlined the criteria that would all need to be met in order for the Regents to appoint an advisory committee and consider revisions to the U-M investment policy. The last criteria stipulated that U-M administration must find the organization in question to arguably be “uniquely responsible” for the ethical concerns being considered.
The push for fossil fuel divestment began in earnest in 2013 when the Divest and Invest student activist campaign urged the U-M administration to sell the University’s holdings in the fossil fuel industry and to invest in renewable energy and efforts that would decrease the University’s reliance on fossil fuels. The campaign argued that the environmental costs of extracting and using fossil fuels were enough of an “ethical concern” that the three criteria for the Regents to appoint a committee were met by fossil fuel investments.
In an interview with The Daily, U-M alum and a previous member of Divest and Invest Nicholas Jansen said the campaign focused on generating support for divestment on campus to put pressure on the administration and to argue fossil fuel investments were inherently at odds with the University’s position as a leader in research and science..
“We were just building momentum over a few years to try to make the case that, as a leading public research institution in one of the most developed and leading countries in the world … we take a stance that it’s wrong to profit off of fossil fuels,” Jansen said. “We should … not only (be) divesting from fossil fuels, but investing in the solutions of tomorrow.”
Despite Divest and Invest’s efforts to prove fossil fuel investment were antithetical to the University’s mission, administrators remained opposed to altering the investment portfolio, arguing the investment policy criteria to merit a revision had not been adequately met.
In his Dec. 2015 statement, President Schlissel said he appreciated the input of students advocating for fossil fuel divestment, but argued fossil fuels could not be directly linked to an unethical cause because fossil fuel usage was integral to campus operations. Additionally, according to Schlissel, the companies the University invested in also supported renewable energy development.
“I do not believe that a persuasive argument has been made that divestment by the U-M will speed up the necessary transition from coal to renewable or less polluting sources of energy,” Schlissel said. “We made a commitment to our donors to use income generated from the endowment to support our mission for today … the endowment should not be used to further other causes, however noble.”
At the Board of Regents meeting on Dec. 17, 2015, several Regents responded to public commenters, including members of Divest and Invest such as Jansen, to further explain why the University continued to reject calls for divestment.
At the meeting, then-Regent Laurence Deitch (D) said the endowment should remain apolitical and be based solely upon financial considerations.
“As much as I think climate change is a profound problem, I’m against divestment,” Deitch said, according to the meeting minutes. “The endowment is here for the purposes of supporting this great University into perpetuity and it needs to be guided by principles of sound non-political investment management theories.”
During the Dec. 2015 Regent’s meeting, Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty, who retired in April 2021, shared a report stating the University had committed $20 million in alternative assets to the fossil fuel company White Rock Oil & Gas in July 2015.
Jansen said the administration’s refusal to divest indicated they did not seem to perceive the urgency of the climate crisis.
“When the writing was pretty clear … that the climate crisis was here and we needed to transition off of fossil fuels, (the administration was) still stuck in the way things were,” Jansen said. “It was our job as the incoming generation of students to show them that, no, this is a moral imperative, we have a responsibility to lead and we need to do it now.”
‘This is absolutely the wrong path’: growing activist pressure
A 2017-2018 survey conducted by the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program indicated that awareness about climate science and concerns about the impacts of climate change were increasing among the campus community. The survey reported 75 percent of U-M students were “extremely sure” climate change was occurring, nearly 10 percent higher than in 2015.
Several student organizations, including Climate Action Movement (CAM) and Students for Clean Energy, advocated for the University to actively combat climate change by working to achieve carbon neutrality.
On Feb. 5, 2019, Schlissel announced the creation of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN), a group of faculty, staff, students, alumni and outside experts tasked with developing a set of recommendations to help the University achieve carbon neutrality. The Commission released interim reports detailing their research and progress before publishing a draft report for public comment in Dec. 2020. The Commission submitted its final report to Schlissel in Mar. 2021, and in May 2021, the Regents announced the University would pursue a path to full carbon neutrality by 2040.
The issue of fossil fuel divestment was specifically excluded from the scope of the commission’s work. After the PCCN was formed, CAM continued to push for full divestment and for the administration to establish a permanent committee to consider the ethical and moral implications of all of its investments.
Engineering senior and CAM member Leah Webber said the activist organization took a multifaceted, multi-level approach to advocacy by consistently engaging with the regents while simultaneously organizing public rallies and protests around campus. Webber said one of CAM’s priorities was to raise awareness about the University’s direct and indirect contribution to climate change to generate momentum for change.
“Educating people, not just citizens of Ann Arbor, but also students and just people in the state of Michigan who are voters and vote for the regents, has been a pretty big focus for us in trying to create large movements that care about things,” Webber said.
CAM’s pressure campaign also took the form of mass demonstrations, such as the climate strike on Mar. 15, 2019. An estimated 2,500-3,000 local community members rallied, marched around campus as part of a Global Climate Strike, demanding the University commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. The strike ended with a sit-in at the Fleming Administration Building, where 10 demonstrators calling for a public meeting with Schlissel to discuss carbon neutrality were arrested and given citations for trespassing.
Members of Washtenaw County organized a strike in solidarity with another Global Climate Strike on Sept. 21, 2019.
Jansen said the biggest difference he has observed between the climate activism that took place when he was a student at U-M and the more recent efforts is the heightened sense of urgency among student activists and a greater willingness to take public action. He attributes this in part to the activism of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and the efforts of national groups in the United States — such as the Sunrise Movement — which he believes have paved the road for young people aspiring to take part in environmental advocacy.
“While I was organizing in school … it was hard to get people to take the next step of direct actions and sit-ins,” Jansen said. “(Recently) I’ve seen students willing to risk arrest, willing to take high-risk action, to force the administration to respond instead of trying to just go in and talk — which was (what) our main strategy was, like show up at meetings and have some rallies.”
Webber claimed this mass participation also contributed to successes for the fossil fuel divestment movement. Members of CAM and the One University Coalition protested before and after the Dec. 6, 2019 Regents meeting and ultimately blockaded the regents’ exit when they felt their demands were not met. Webber argued their activism contributed to the board’s decision to vote down the $50 million proposed investment in the oil and gas company Vendera Resources in the meeting.
Before the meeting, in a tweet that is no longer available, Regent Jordan Acker (D) said that the regents should vote against the investment, arguing the investment was not in line with the University’s values—a departure from the argument the regents previously made about fossil fuels.
“Vendera is a company that almost exclusively invests in Oil and Gas drilling and exploration, some of the greatest drivers of climate change,” Acker wrote in his tweet, which is no longer visible on Twitter. “At the very moment that (U-M) needs to be pushing away from dirty energy, this is absolutely the wrong path.”
At the following regents meeting on Feb. 21, 2020, the board announced it would not bring forward any additional investments in fossil fuels in order to re-evaluate their investments in fossil fuel companies in alignment with the climate crisis.
At the same time as the board expressed greater openness to hear and consider stakeholder input, administrators continued to insist the endowment remain apolitical and separate from community input. In an interview with The Daily the week after the February meeting, Schlissel said the University should not work to reflect the beliefs of its student body within the endowment itself.
“The student voice is important, but it doesn’t have a big input into the endowment,” Schlissel said.
‘Student activism was the driving force behind this action’: discontinuing fossil fuel investments
In an email to The Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the regents had consulted students and faculty in the time between the Feb. 2020 and the March 2021 meetings to evaluate fossil fuel investment policy.
“Specific to the investment policy review, university leaders and Regents listened carefully to the public and individual input from outside experts and advocates, heard directly from others and worked with the university’s financial leaders and the investment office to develop a new approach that was grounded with sound investment choices that will continue to serve the university in the future,” Fitzgerald said.
This process of engaging with students culminated in the announcement at the meeting in March 2021, which declared the University would discontinue and avoid additional investments in fossil fuels and further direct funds towards renewable energy sources. The Board set the goal of having a net-zero carbon emissions endowment by 2050. U-M is the first American public university to adopt this set of commitments, according to Regent Mark Bernstein (D).
The decision differs from a full divestment because doing so would require the University to sell its current investments in fossil fuels.
When the University of California system announced it would divest from fossil fuels in a Sep. 2019 LA Times op-ed, Jagdeep Singh Bachher, UC’s chief financial officer, and Richard Sherman, chairman of the UC Board of Regents Investments Committee, said they would have all such investments sold by the end of the month. However, Bachher and Sherman used the op-ed to note they were divesting because of the financial risk of fossil fuel investments, not because of the community pressure that preceded the decision.
“We don’t make investment decisions simply based on the preferences of one group or another of our stakeholders, which is not to say we don’t listen to them,” Bachher and Sherman wrote. “While our rationale may not be the moral imperative that many activists embrace, our investment decision-making process leads us to the same result.”
In U-M’s announcement of its new fossil fuel investment policy, administrators differed from the rhetoric of the UC officials, maintaining the purpose of generating a profit for the endowment while emphasizing the social implications of the decision. This approach also marks a difference in the focus on the endowment as independent from the views of community stakeholders and activist groups.
In announcing the new investment policy, Bernstein focused on the importance of disinvestment to pulling away from fossil fuels and developing a sustainable global economy—a far cry from Schlissel’s previous arguments. He thanked student activists for their advocacy on the issue and urged other universities to consider the concerns of their students.
“I want to address our students who have been thoughtful, well informed, absolutely relentless, and in the end successful in moving this issue to the very top of our agenda,” Bernstein said. “Student activism was the driving force behind this action. So I say to the leaders of other universities: listen to your students, they are knocking on your door. Let them in, and learn from them, they will educate you, they will motivate you, and they will inspire you to do the right thing.”
Though the University emphasizes the decision to discontinue fossil fuel investments is based upon maximizing financial return, administrators have now demonstrated a willingness to acknowledge the views of stakeholders that contrasts with the previous position of an endowment that is separate from student perspectives.
In an interview with The Daily in April, Schlissel predicted pulling away from fossil fuels would be a good long-term financial decision and credited activists for his change in perspective.
“I give really a lot of credit to the folks who are the powerful advocates on this issue, it’s an important issue,” Schlissel said. “The basis of the board moving forward is actually fiduciary. So what I mean by that is we came to understand that it’s inevitable that our society moves away from fossil fuels…the fact that we know that we’re going to end up not using oil and gas like we use it now means that investments in those assets are bad long-term investments — they’re going to go down in value.”
Student activists have expressed support for the disinvestment decision while also being critical of its perceived shortcomings. Webber said CAM viewed the revision in investment policy as a significant improvement, but she said the organization also criticized the plan for allowing investments in natural gas through private equity funds. Webber said she believes activists were the main reason the regents decided to discontinue fossil fuel investments.
“I think the activists played pretty much the majority of the role in convincing the Regents that this was something necessary to do,” Webber said. “Activists were really instrumental in educating people, specifically the Regents, and really just pushing them with media pressure and public pressure.”
Jansen said the University has an obligation to listen to the concerns of students when considering its investment policy, especially in regard to fossil fuel investments and efforts to address climate change.
“As students, we are not only literally the future of our country, but we are what makes the University the University,” Jansen said. “And as students continue to get more organized and continue to fight more and more for a future we deserve…and need to survive…the administration needs to listen more.”
Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.