Fossil-fuel divestment needs a campus conversation, one expert says

The case for environmentally friendly endowments

Schools should divest their endowments of fossil-fuel energy companies that contribute to global warming—or at least open a dialogue about the issue on campus—according to Evan Mandery, John Jay College professor, writing in the New York Times.

A growing campaign has arisen for colleges and universities to divest their endowments of assets that contribute to global warming—which Mandery calls our "era’s defining challenge." 

However, few institutions have done so. The only school among the top 150 largest endowments to divest is Stanford University.

Good reasons to move slowly

Schools are slow to adopt environmentally friendly investment policies, Mandery contends, in part because "universities have cultivated relationships with businesses, governments, and donors for commercial and political purposes," which limit their ability to take quick, dramatic action.

Others are resistant to using endowments in what they perceive to be a politically motivated way. For example, David Skorton, Cornell University's outgoing president, says universities "must resist, in almost all cases, the temptation to manage these precious funds to further social or political causes, no matter how worthy."

How to develop socially responsible investment policies

Skorton is not alone. A number of high-profile administrators have spoken about the need for restraint in using endowments as tools of influence. Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, says the "the bar has to be very high" for investment changes, because "there are lots of things that people don’t like about the world."

A call for open dialogue

Mandery notes that divestment for social good is not unprecedented, noting that "more than 150 schools divested from South Africa during apartheid." Ultimately, he contends that, at a minimum fossil-fuel divestment is worthy of a discussion—which most institutions have not engaged in.

Even if such a discussion does not lead to outright divestment, schools could use their influence to force companies they invest in to change their behavior. "Investment could be contingent on a company’s agreeing to curtail its political spending, report on climate change, or include environmental experts on its board," he writes.

Furthermore, open debate about divestment is important for reasons aside from climate change, Mandery points out, such as preserving the system of shared governance which is central to higher education (Mandery, "Sunday Review," New York Times, 11/1).

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