announced that it has successfully fulfilled its pledge to divest from fossil fuels, making it the most recent to do so. While university divestment from fossil fuels tends not to make the front page, the movement is nothing new and has only gained strength since its inception and as awareness of the catastrophic effects of climate change has grown. To date, more than 50 universities in the US have pledged to divest while 1,192 institutions and over 58,000 individuals have all made the pledge. Together, that represents over $14 trillion (yes, that’s a “t”) of investment money.
When most people imagine a campaign to lobby the administration and board of trustees of a university, they will imagine young 20-year-olds, full of idealism and a sense of social justice, leading rallies and shouting into megaphones. If this is your vision, you’re not wrong, you’re just missing a big piece. Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, challenged the idea that university divestment movements are purely student-supported and published some surprising results.
After examining public petitions and records from 30 US and Canadian universities, they found 4,450 faculty signatories, indicating surprisingly broad support from university academics. The authors hypothesize that this number likely underrepresents the true extent of support among faculty since significantly more tenure track faculty signed open letters than non-tenure track faculty, suggesting that the latter group may fear jeopardizing their careers if they demonstrate open support for divestment campaigns.
With widespread support among both student bodies and faculty, the two largest constituent groups at universities, why are universities so reticent to divest? In an article in The Conversation, Jennie Stephens, lead author from the previously mentioned study, says it comes down to two fears among administrators. First, they claim, without evidence, that such a shift in endowment investment will harm their investors. If only someone would study endowment investment performance comparing universities that have and have not divested… Trinks et al. to the rescue! In their study, they compared investment portfolios from 1927-2017 and found that fossil fuel divestment would not have made any significant change, which completely undermines the most pervasive argument from opponents of fossil fuel divestment.
Employing a classic use of the slippery slope informal logical fallacy, administrators also worry that if they acquiesce to fossil fuel divestment demands, then a flurry of other divestment campaigns (think guns, tobacco, abortion, etc.) are sure to follow. To this, proponents point out one clear distinction administrators can use to isolate the issue. While firearms and tobacco take many lives a year, their impacts pale in comparison to the effects of catastrophic climate change, which may very well endanger the existence of every living thing on this planet.
Universities only stand to gain from committing to fossil fuel divestment. Not only do they satisfy the will of their faculty and student bodies, but they also reinforce the long tradition of universities in the vanguard of social change, all without jeopardizing endowment investments. Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do. Committing to a sustainable future and maintaining a habitable planet shouldn’t be a political expression. University students and faculty know this. We just need to help admin get on board.