Call for Universities to Divest in Fossil Fuel Companies

In an attempt to curb carbon emissions and fight climate change, students from more than 100 colleges and universities around the United States are asking their administrations to divest holdings in large fossil fuel companies by selling off stocks in coal, oil, and gas companies. Participating students have expressed their concern at the lack of climate change discourse at the national level and are showing their frustration by demanding changes at their own schools. A student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, one of the more vocal student bodies in the movement, stated, “We’ve reached this point of intense urgency that we need to act on climate change now.”

Some school administrations have agreed to the student demands. Unity College in Maine became the first institute to vote to divest itself from coal, oil and gas companies. In an open letter to other college and community presidents, Unity College President Stephen Mulkey wrote, “In the near future, the political tide will turn and the public will demand action on climate change.” His call continued, "Those within higher education must now do something they have largely avoided at all costs: confront the policy makers who refuse to accept scientific reality. We must be willing to lead by example…We must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios. We must divest."

In a similar move, Hampshire College in Massachusetts has approved a broad investment portfolio that is clearing itself of fossil fuel stocks. Addressing the administration's decision, College President Jonathan Lash stated, "Among other changes, our policy has led us to invest in developers of renewable energy technologies rather than the producers of fossil fuels. Our donors gave money to create our endowment as an investment in the future. Our business as an educational institution is to invest in the future. In a rapidly warming world the future of our students will depend on quickly expanding the use of wind, solar power and other carbon-free sources of energy, and deep reductions in the use of fossil fuels."

Other schools remain skeptical of student demands, arguing that divesting would compromise and undermine their investment funds' main goal: maximum returns in support of education. Vice president for finance at Swarthmore College, Suzanne Welsh, expressed her position against divestment stating, “The college’s policy is that the endowment is not to be invested for social purposes” beyond educating students. She continued, “To use the endowment in support of other missions is not appropriate. It’s not what our donors have given money for.” Currently, no university with an endowment exceeding $1 billion has agreed to divest from fossil fuels stocks. Overall, divestment demands are very new and colleges are still trying to figure out the best way to approach student concerns. While some administrators agree with student demands, they are also concerned about divisive board discussions. In addition, Mark Milstein, clinical professor of management and organizations at Cornell University, indicated that the topic of divestment highlights Universities sometimes competing interests in business and environmental sustainability. He stated, “Energy is cyclical, but recently, energy has performed extremely well as a sector . . . but [it] often consists of coal, oil and gas,” he continued, “You’ve got an internal tension that exists there. They can be very good performing assets, but the underlying business that is responsible for that growth also contributes to an environmental and social problem.”

Bill McKibben speaking at Rochester Institute of TechnologyBill McKibben speaking at the Rochester Institute of TechnologyThe students' demands were sparked by writer and environmental advocate Bill McKibben and his nationwide 350.org campaign, which seeks to reduce carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, what many scientists see as the maximum safe level. Levels are now at 390 parts per million and McKibben is touring the country to raise awareness of the issue in 350.org's Do the Math tour. Colleges are a key target, with McKibben observing that “Two-thirds of the most important people in American business are on college boards. We want them grappling with it; we want students debating it. And I think fossil fuel will be softened and weakened politically if we can make this case.” In announcing the campaign, 350.org stated, "It just doesn't make sense for universities to invest in a system that will leave their students no livable planet to use their degrees on or for pension funds to invest in corporations that will ruin the world we plan to retire in." As a part of his campaign, McKibben has demanded that energy companies stop exploring for new fossil fuel reserves, stop lobbying against emission policies and help devise a transition plan that will encourage lower-carbon energy sources.

Participating students see the campaigns as a conscious imitation of the successful demands in the 1980s for colleges to divest from stocks of companies that were doing business in apartheid South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key figure in the anti-apartheid movement, has endorsed McKibben's campaign. In an interview for 350.org, Tutu stated, "Climate change is a deeply moral issue" and continued, "Here in Africa, we see the dreadful suffering of people from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods, even though they’ve done nothing to cause the situation. Once again, we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts.”

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