A small group of Union College students joined hundreds of others in Albany last month to call for action to combat climate change. They are carrying that message on campus, too.
“We are asking Union to invest in our future and divest from fossil fuels,” Kira Wilson, president of the college’s USustain student group, said at the Albany rally.
On campus, Wilson and other students in the environmental group have pressed for the college to do just that: divest the college’s $440 million endowment from fossil fuel investments.
The group has garnered more than 500 student and more than 100 faculty signatures in support of divestment, and in the spring they initiated conversations with Union College President David Harris and other school officials on the subject, with an initial meeting taking place over the summer.
Focusing largely on an economic argument that fossil fuel investments are simply unsustainable as economies shift to renewable energy sources, the students are looking to make both a practical case and a moral argument for combating climate change.
“As a country we are moving away from them. As an institution we are moving away from them,” Wilson said of fossil fuels during a recent interview on campus. “These investments do not hold long-term potential.”
The students also argue that divesting from fossil fuels is the right thing to do for a college that boasts of its interest in sustainability. They made the case that a commitment to divestment could serve as a marketing signal to prospective students focused on climate change.
They hope to have a commitment to divest, which ultimately will have to come from the Union College in to Board of Trustees, by the end of the school year.
“We don’t see why this couldn’t be the year we get a definitive answer,” said Union senior Carlos Piedad, also a leader in USustain.
It’s not clear just how deeply invested Union is in fossil fuels – if at all. In a statement, Michele Gibson, Union’s vice president of administration and finance, said the college “does not have any direct investments in fossil fuels.”
But when asked whether the college was indirectly invested in fossil fuels through the various funds into which the endowment puts money, Gibson said it “depends on the status of the many funds the endowment is invested in at any one time.”
Union’s endowment, which topped $440 million as of June 2018, is made up of a variety of investment types, including stocks and mutual funds; private equity and venture capital; emerging markets; mortgages; as well as so-called “multistrategy” and “hedged equity” funds, according to the college’s financial statements. In 2018, the college’s investments returned gains of just over $50 million, nearly $24 million of which was committed to the school’s current operations.
Campaigns pressuring colleges to divest their endowments from fossil fuel-related investments have emerged in recent years as a tactic of environmental activists devoted to reducing the power of fossil fuel companies.
The strategy, which flared at Middlebury College in 2013 and has been pushed by environmental activist Bill McKibben across the country, scored a major victory in recent months when officials with the University of California system endowment announced it was divesting from fossil fuel investment. The California system has more than $100 billion in total investments.
“Our job is to make money for the University of California, and we’re betting we can do that without fossil fuel investments,” University of California investment officials wrote in a September article for the Los Angeles Times. “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk.”
But the campaigns do not always result in divestment.
Skidmore College students petitioned administrators in late 2013 to explore divestment. The college established a task force, which consisted of students, faculty, staff and one trustee, to study the issue. The task force ultimately recommended in 2015 against pursuing divestment.
“Although we share the divestment movement’s goals, we are less sanguine about divestment as a tactic,” the task force wrote in its final report. “The value of fossil fuel divestment, and the extent to which such divestment will actually serve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is uncertain, and it will remain largely symbolic until there is greater consensus and more investment alternatives.”
Bob Turner, a Skidmore political science professor who served on the task force, said it was difficult to determine where they would even draw the line in a divestment effort. For example: Do you divest from companies that produce fracking equipment? What about Exxon’s investments in renewable energy?
Moreover, when the task force convened meetings on campus, it mostly heard concerns about increasing financial aid, building a new science center and improving diversity, rather than environmental issues.
“They said 'There’s not enough classes in my major,' ” Turner said of the feedback from students. “ 'I want a new science building. I want a new athletic center.' ”
Turner said Skidmore would have had little impact on the broader investment market by divesting, and that it would have risked harming the school’s endowment, which funds scholarships and campus programs. He highlighted Skidmore’s commitment to reducing on-campus carbon emissions, and suggested that divestment might have been a distraction from that goal.
“We are super-aggressive on the sustainability approach, and we decided to pursue a Skidmore sustainability mission to reduce our carbon emissions rather than pursuing a political stunt,” Turner said in a recent interview.
The Union students, though, are hoping the investment and political landscape has shifted enough to overcome the arguments that prevailed when Skidmore studied the question a few years ago.
Wilson said initial conversations with administrators were positive and that they had promised to study the school’s investment, and whether it was feasible to divest.
“They are really interested in looking more into the economic argument,” Wilson said of her impression of administration officials. “We are trying to work with administration. We see the administration as a support system for us to get this done instead of an enemy.”
Harris, Union’s president, rejected a request for an interview on divestment, but a Union spokesman provided the written statement from Gibson.
“The endowment is a significant resource for Union College and contributes directly to our ability to offer a Union education to many students who otherwise would not have the means to attend. In addition it helps us to ensure that our students get a Union education that prepares them to lead with empathy, wisdom and courage,” Gibson said in the statement. “The students, faculty and staff of USustain exemplify this kind of leadership.”
She said the Union trustee board is responsible for the college’s endowment investment strategy and that “any changes in that strategy must consider the broader impact on Union’s ability to support our students.”
The USustain students said they hoped to have a chance to take their case directly to the Union Board of Trustees and argued that a commitment to divestment would serve as evidence of the school’s proclaimed commitment to sustainability.
“It’s important the school is putting their money where their mouth is and doing what they say, not talking about sustainability while putting money in companies literally destroying our planet,” said Molly Goodman, a Union senior studying environmental science.