What motivates college students to urge divestment of fossil-fuels from their school’s endowment?
The vast majority of American universities maintain their operations by at least some reliance on fossil fuels, and thus, financial divestment from the fossil-fuel industry is a more viable path of eliminating support for fossil-fuel producers than ceasing consumption of fossil fuels for university operations. Perhaps, this fact motivates individuals toward collective action and campaigns for divestment from fossil-fuel producers. That is, individuals can reduce their own reliance on fossil fuels, and perhaps even reduce an institution’s reliance as well, but the only way individuals can effect systematic change is to cease or reduce financial support for the fossil-fuel industry through the institutions—in which individuals are stakeholders.
Universities are institutions that rely on their human capital to produce knowledge and awareness of contemporary problems. In the context of environmental change, universities, as microcosms of society, can be laboratories of innovation for how campuses can sustainably operate. Universities, as places of higher learning, can promote and advance sustainability through teaching and curriculum, as well as through independent research and the free exchange of ideas. This unique position allows for universities to be agents for social change through education, research, and engagement and outreach to society. Through their human agents—faculty and often students—universities drive engagement with critical social issues, such as fossil-fuel divestment.
For those managing the endowment, however, the school comes first.
Colleges and universities have competing moral responsibilities in the governance of their endowments. First, they must attempt to earn the greatest possible return, thereby enabling them to pursue their trifold mission of educating the next generation of leaders, pushing forward the frontiers of science through cutting edge research, and engaging in civic leadership in their communities. Second, they must invest intentionally in a manner that is consistent with their values as well as fiduciary law. Given the clear signals from researchers at universities throughout the world, climate change presents an existential threat in opposition to most universities’ values. Yet, a decision to divest an endowment from fossil fuels is clouded by political controversy and is perhaps contrary to the duties of loyalty, prudence, and impartiality required of fiduciaries.
Read more about the research on divestment here.
Post by Marcelino Pantoja