Students and alumni at hundreds of colleges nationwide are urging their administrations to stop investing millions in endowment funds in coal, oil and gas. But after months of demonstrations, sit-ins and talk with school officials, the movement's results are mixed, and the answer many activists keep getting is still no.
The issue, activists say, is a moral one. Taking their cue from the successful push in the 1970s for universities to divest from apartheid South Africa, now students from Maine to California say fossil-fuel divestment would help curb climate change because of the moral authority their schools' voices carry.
The push for fossil-fuel divestment began in earnest at Swarthmore College in 2011 and has gained traction at campuses nationwide. While few of the bids have managed to persuade colleges to divest entirely from fossil fuels, 23 colleges and universities have removed some fossil-fuel companies from their investment portfolios, according to the environmental group 350.org's advocacy project Fossil Free.
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And at Harvard, which has by far the largest endowment of any American university, 72 percent of the more than 3,500 of undergraduates who voted last year backed a ballot measure that demanded the Ivy League university divest its more than $35 billion in endowment funds.
“Investing in companies that are at the root of climate change is immoral,” said Harvard sophomore Talia Rothstein, co-coordinator of the student-led climate change activism group Divest Harvard. “We have to divest in order to transition into a renewable society."
Still, divestment pushes at campuses nationwide have met with resistance from many university officials and industry group the Petroleum Association of America, who say divestment isn't an effective strategy to combat climate change — as well as from the courts, in Harvard's case.
Opponents of divestment say direct actions to limit carbon emissions on campus and at fossil-fuel plants are already being taken, and that the harm divestment would cause to schools' endowments would outweigh any environmental impact.
"For many schools, that would be impossible because of the commingling of funds," said endowment investment expert Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy analysis at the National Association of College University Business Officers. "Students will [suffer], because investment returns are being used to fund scholarships, faculty research projects and other support they need."
Harvard's divestment battle even made its way this year to court earlier this year, when students including Rothstein sued the school, calling Harvard's fossil-fuels investment "a breach of their fiduciary and charitable duties as a public charity and nonprofit corporation."
Student activists were dealt a blow when a Massachusetts judge dismissed their suit. Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson said in his decision last month that students had "brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek."
The students plan to appeal. Harvard declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the university "is fully committed to leadership in (climate change) through research, education, engagement with key actors in the energy and policy domains."
One of the divestment movement's highest-profile — if partial — victories came last year at Stanford University when the school's board of trustees voted to divest from coal.
President John Hennessy said in May 2014 that the school had a responsibility to “promote the sustainability of our planet” and called coal divestment “a small but constructive step.” But months later, the student group Divest Stanford learned that the university, whose endowment tops $20 billion, had invested in three oil and gas companies. A Stanford spokesperson told NBC in an email that the university had decided to divest only from coal companies, not from other fossil fuels.
The victory was a partial one, but it also was a shot in the arm for divestment efforts elsewhere — including at the University of Maine, which decided to divest fully from all fossil fuel companies, and at Syracuse University, which decided to divest only from coal.
Meanwhile, at Stanford and elsewhere, students are continuing their push for full divestment.
At the University of California, whose board of regents is weighing divestment, president Janet Napolitano announced a plan to reduce carbon emissions by investing $1 billion of the school system's more than $7 billion endowment in renewable energy solutions to combat climate change.
Activist Jake Soiffer, a field organizer for the the UC-wide coalition Fossil Free Cal, lauded that plan but said it’s not enough. He wants full divestment.
“The entire fossil fuel industry is destructive,” Soiffer said. “It is responsible for more than five times the amount of carbon emissions. Their business model is set up around that, and we need our institution to use their power to call that out.”