Students at Harvard have joined a nationwide movement asking their school to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.

Credit: Will Hart / Flickr Creative Commons

Gone Viral: Campus Campaigns to Divest

December 6, 2012

Alli Welton, a sophomore at Harvard College, is passionate about curbing global warming.

"We can’t be using our money anymore to support these institutions, these fossil fuel companies that are destroying our future," she says.

Welton is one of the many college students in New England and across the nation who are demanding that schools divest their endowments from the worst fossil fuel companies, and then reinvest in local communities, sustainable business and alternative energy for the future. 

Dan Apfel, executive director of the advocacy group Responsible Endowments Coalition, works with activist students and administrators. He says that in the last three months, the movement has spread from 15 or 20 campuses, to more than 100 campuses nationwide. 

"There’s students working at Harvard, at Brandeis, Williams, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and other schools all over Massachusetts, New England and all over the country," he says.

Many students were motivated by a frightening article in Rolling Stone published in July 2012, in which author Bill McKibben details a global catastrophe caused by climate change. From that article, the movement against investing in fossil fuels has gone viral.

Harvard University, with an endowment of nearly 31 billion dollars, has the largest educational endowment in the world. It's not know what percentage of that money is invested in fossil fuels, but nevertheless, students are asking for a change. A recent campus referendum shows 72% of the students who voted want Harvard to divest its endowment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. 

Harvard's response: Not likely. Although administrators are willing to have a conversation with students, University President Drew Faust said it was “unlikely” that Harvard would change its investment strategy, according to an article in the Harvard Crimson

"Right now I feel like our administration is stalling," says Welton, a co-coordinator of the student-led divestiture movement on campus. Welton says that civil disobedience would likely be an eventual course of action for students.  

"That’s what worked for the apartheid divestment campaigners and unless our administration decides to take us seriously this time, I imagine that’s where we’ll have to go," says Welton. 

Apfel says it's safe to assume that Harvard and other college endowments invest in fossil fuels.

"Fossil fuels make up a really big part of the stock market in the U.S. and as investments worldwide," says Apfel. "So any investor that has not specifically excluded fossil fuels from their investments, is investing in fossil fuels."   

Most investors today are benchmarking themselves against a major market index, such as the S&P 500 or MSCI World Index, according to Kristin Fafard, director of research at the investment firm Federal Street Advisors in Boston. "Because of the large representation in each of those benchmarks of stocks that are either drilling for oil, or involved along the whole supply chain of oil or natural gas, it is very difficult to not have exposure to [fossil fuel] companies unless you look very different from the major market indexes," Fafard says.  

Despite this, some schools are paying attention to students.  Within the last year, Hampshire college in Amherst put forth new sustainable investing guidelines that adhere to environmental, social and governance criteria.  

 And there are interesting developments at Middlebury College in Vermont. Of Middlebury's $900 million endowment, almost 4% is invested in fossil fuels, according to an All-Staff email sent by the University’s president. The president wrote that Middlebury will host a panel discussion with experts in endowment management and divestment. The goal: to start a conversation with all interested parties about how the University’s endowment should be invested.

And guess who's a Scholar-in Residence at Vermont's Middlebury College- none other than Bill McKibben, the Rolling Stone writer whose article may just have sparked a revolution.  


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