Throughout United States history, activism has started on the college campus. From civil rights to Occupy Wall Street, Vietnam and feminism, college campuses have proven to be breeding grounds for social movement and political change of all sorts. In recent years, students have called upon their universities to divest from certain industries. First it was South Africa, and then it was tobacco. Now students want to stop their universities from profiting off of the pollution of the planet, namely with the use of fossil fuels.
This latest initiative has been widely sponsored by 350.org and is called Fossil Free. It calls for “institutional leaders to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any comingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years.”
Over 300 schools have started petitions through Fossil Free in order to compel their administration to divest. However, only six schools have successfully completed divestment since this campaign started over a year ago, and many are hitting more barriers than previously expected.
Many schools claim that divesting from fossil fuels is not the optimal way to make a difference. Schools like Middlebury College and Harvard University released statements about their reluctance to divest. President Liebowizt of Middlebury sent a letter to students, staff and faculty in which he asked, “Will divestment ever be more than a symbolic statement?”
Harvard University has the largest endowment of any university at $31 billion. In a meeting with members of Divest Harvard, two members of the school’s governing board warned that the economy is inextricably linked with energy and that divestment would do nothing to alter the basic construct of this equation. Instead of pulling away from the table and losing their influence with big oil companies, Christianna Wood, a trustee of Vassar College, believes that schools can better make a difference with their proxy voting and engagement with the companies. She said by divesting, college will “not only lose money, they will lose their voice.”
However, proxy votes have proven to have little to no affect in this area. In 2012, Harvard voted in favor of ConocoPhilips setting targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. It has failed repeatedly since 2008 because of lack of votes. Similar problems have been met with proposals at ExxonMobil.
Both Harvard and Middlebury statements express concern for the financial stability of the institutions if the schools were to divest. President Liebowitz alluded to “fiduciary responsibility” and “uncertainty about impacts” as important factors in there decision making process.
While any school can make the case that divesting will hurt their bottom line, Fossil Free was never about harming the fossil fuel companies. This movement is about sending a message to anyone paying attention that respectable institutions will not support the degradation of the environment and instead will commit to ensuring students a brighter future. It is about standing firm in moral teachings that prominent universities, such as Boston College, instill in students every day. Whether or not schools will hold themselves to a higher standard when investing and accepting sponsorships remains to be seen.
Feature image via 350.org/Flickr.