Op-ed | Evidence shows divestment is the smart and right thing
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 15:10
In 1978, when Columbia University became one of the first major universities to divest from companies profiting from apartheid South Africa, the trustees gave part of their reasoning as “to maintain educational leadership,” which demanded “ethical and humane positions that give effective expression to our highest national ideals.”
In 1990, Harvard University divested from tobacco companies out of a desire to not “be associated with companies [whose] products create a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm to other human beings,” as President Derek Bok explained.
And this year, Cornell President David J. Skorton explained in an op-ed that the university’s 2005 divestment from companies doing business in Sudan was an example of “cases in the past where the risks to the endowment were manageable and where we thought our action would help accomplish a socially responsible goal.”
Higher education is driven by ideals such as diversity, social responsibility and a desire to seek the truth. Looking back now as an alumnus, I remember those ideals are what drew me to apply to Tufts, an institution that shared my family’s values. But the school’s resistance to engage in a dialogue around its investment practices led me and my peers, as students, to challenge the administration. We were disappointed by the school’s unwillingness to enter into a meaningful dialogue around how investment policy failed to reflect on Tufts’ values of global citizenship, sustainability, compassion and integrity.
I’m thankful for the experiences I had as a student working to try to change Tufts’ investment practices, even though it was challenging. Those experiences taught me a lot about social change and helped lead me to a career path of advocating socially and environmentally focused investing, both in higher education endowments, as well as in private equity markets. When I worked at the Responsible Endowments Coalition, we carefully studied the strategy of the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement with many of the stakeholders who founded what is now a global movement. Today, I work for a sustainable private equity platform, where I get to witness the exponential growth of environmentally and socially focused investing from the perspective of serious investors and issuers in the market. I’ve gained a deeper professional understanding of what fossil fuel divestment and real sustainable investment can look like over the past several years, and I can say that my support for this movement has only grown the longer I’ve been in this field.
Studies attempting to examine the financial impact of divestment on a school’s endowment have generally shown that divestment doesn’t pose a risk to endowment growth. (That is, unless you’re counting the study that the petroleum industry themselves conducted, which, based on their methodology and historical penchant for spreading misinformation, is hardly on solid ground.) Research about broader socially and environmentally focused investing shows that despite outdated conventional wisdom, doing the right thing doesn’t have to cost the school anything at all, and could even benefit it. Finance can be intimidating, but if I’ve learned anything after years of study, it’s that even the experts will admit that investing can be a crapshoot. Even with the unpredictability of capital markets and the great uncertainty around the future of a carbon price, the value of fossil fuel extraction is clearly on the decline.
I believe serious evidence shows divestment is a no-brainer for our balance sheet, but I don’t care much to talk about divestment solely in terms of financial impacts. Here’s why: It’s widely accepted that a mass movement is needed to shift energies in finance, politics, economics and our cultural sphere to create a sustainable society. In the past, higher education has played a critical role in incubating the thought leaders that drive those shifts, as well as the ideas that drive social movements. Comprehensive environmental action will require significant personal, public and private sector efforts, including a price on greenhouse gases that reflects their destructive power. That price can only come from governments, and governments will only move if enough of us demand a radical change in how we think about the value of our economic activity. The moral outrage over apartheid South Africa emanated from and was amplified by higher educational institutions taking a real stand, which led to congressional action. We can, and must, do it again.
When the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee became the first religious community to divest from fossil fuels earlier this year, Senior Minister Rev. Dr. Drew Kennedy said, “Climate change is an issue that I believe requires a mass movement to get our leaders’ attention. If we can get the divestment movement to catch fire, it has the potential to do what Selma did for the Civil Rights movement, Seneca Falls did for women’s suffrage and the Stonewall riots did for LGBT rights.” Since then, many more religious societies have added their names to the growing list of schools, cities, foundations, individuals and others that have divested. This movement is catching fire.
We must recognize that decision-makers at Tufts are tasked with difficult choices. Every day, they balance competing interests, including cultivating an alumni support base, serving students’ needs, hedging against future uncertainty and ensuring that their investment policies dutifully follow the law. (And yes, research has shown that divestment can be in full compliance with the trustees’ fiduciary responsibility.) Divestment is a big decision and not to be taken lightly.