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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Trustees approve new Sustainability Investment Fund

The Tufts Board of Trustees approved an initiative to establish the Tufts Sustainability Investment Fund at its Nov. 8 meeting, which will allow donors to designate monetary gifts to be earmarked for investments that meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria, a series of general criteria used to evaluate the sustainability and ethical impact of investing in a corporation.

The sustainability fund is being implemented on the recommendation of a working group appointed last year to look at issues of divestment from fossil fuels, according to Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell. The working group consisted of students, faculty and trustees.

Lecturer of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Ann Rappaport, a member of the working group, explained that the group began meeting in May 2013 and prepared a proposal for the Feb. 8, 2014 meeting of the trustees.

Rappaport noted an increasing interest in socially responsible investing, with investors successfully pressuring organizations into providing socially and environmentally responsible investment opportunities. She said that the fund will only be invested in companies that value ESG factors.

“More and more people and institutions are becoming interested in having their money in ESG funds,” she said. “People want to invest in organizations that have values and practices that are consistent with what they think are important.”

Campbell explained that an advisory group is being appointed to determine the definition of sustainability and consider the investment options available.

“The term sustainability can be very broad,” she said.

She added that the final investment decisions will be made by the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees, although the advisory group will consist of staff, faculty, students and members of a professional investment office.

The university will initially seed the fund with one million dollars, Campbell said.

“That will be the start, and we’ll see how well it does in terms of earning a return and who might be interested in seeing their endowment gift invested that way," she said.

Rappaport explained that the fund will be used to support green initiatives at Tufts, both in operations as well as in academics and research.

“It’s really hard for many universities to get the money they need for operations,” she said.

Rappaport said that although donors typically get excited by ambitious programs and new buildings, funding for facilities is necessary for an energy-efficient campus.

Ben Weilerstein, a member of Tufts Climate Action (formerly Tufts Divest) who was also in the working group, expressed his frustration that the group did not seriously explore the option to fully divest from fossil fuels.

“We were very excited at first when they created the working group because we thought ... they wanted to hear what we had to say, but once we actually got to the meetings, we found that they had an idea of what would come out of these meetings and that was what was going to happen,” Weilerstein, a junior, said. “They weren’t really interested in having a serious conversation about how to get Tufts to divest -- more so they were interested in trying to prove why we couldn’t divest.”

Rappaport noted that there were some difficulties in coming to agreements on certain issues.

“There was this challenge of reconciling the data that was in front of us versus our expectations of what might happen over the next several years and that made it very hard to come to a consensus,” Rappaport said. “There was general agreement about some things, there was disagreement about others.”

The proposal eventually included divided opinions, according to Weilerstein, one of which was the recommendation to establish a sustainability fund.

Rappaport added that the fund could attract potential donors who had never given to the university before but would be encouraged by the sustainability fund.

“My hope is that there is a big spike in both numbers of new donors and in amounts,” she said. “I hope people will say, ‘Tufts is really taking sustainability seriously, and I’m going to reward that.’”

Andrew Hastings-Black (LA ’08) said that he looked forward to donating to the sustainability fund.

“It sounds like it will be presented to the donors on equal footing with the endowment," Hastings-Black told the Daily in an email. "If so, that’s terrific.”

Rappaport said she hopes that the returns from the sustainability fund will be as great or greater than the returns from the conventionally-funded endowment.

“If they are, then you have a business case for divestment,” she said. “[The sustainability fund] is a small step in the right direction, but it may be a really important step. If the returns are as good or better, then of course we would divest.”

Campbell said that compared to divestment from fossil fuels, which would be a political statement, she thinks the current actions offer a more practical solution.

“They're actually ways of using our resources that are more sustainable as an institution,” she said.

Devyn Powell (LA ’14), a member of the divestment working group, said that Tufts should use the fund to invest in renewable energy and viable alternatives to fossil fuels, as that would make it increasingly possible for the university to divest from fossil fuels. She added that she hopes that the university will not see the sustainability fund as the end to the divestment process, but will instead use it as a launching pad to take further action.

“Overall, while I commend Tufts for taking this great step, I don’t think it’s enough to sit here and pat ourselves on the back,” Powell said. “There’s still more to be done.”

Lila Kohrman-Glaser, another member of Tufts Climate Action and part of the divestment working group, agreed.

“I am happy to see that the Tufts administration is making a fund that is sustainable, and I’m happy that the Tufts divestment campaign was able to help them get to that point,” Kohrman-Glaser, a senior, said. “However, a small sustainability fund does not negate the fact that Tufts is profiting from investments in the fossil fuel industry."

Weilerstein, however, underscored the necessity of Tufts divesting completely from fossil fuels.

“If that doesn’t happen, Tufts is continuing to put money into an industry that is responsible for millions of deaths annually from climate change and pollution,” he said.

Weilerstein noted Tufts' interest in on-campus energy sustainability, which he said is good but not satisfactory, especially compared to the amount of money and global impact of the university's investments.

“These little things aren’t bad things, but the problem is that they’re used to mask ... the greater harms that Tufts is causing,” he said.

As a result of a national divestment movement, the financial sector has started to create more opportunities to invest without fossil fuels, according to Weilerstein. He said he hopes that Tufts will join other organizations in pledging to divest and then work to create co-mingled funds that do not include fossil fuels. He is also optimistic that alumni who care about the issue will withhold their donations until Tufts divests from fossil fuels.

“We want [alumni] to really show the university that one million dollars is not comparable to 70 billion [that Tufts currently invests in fossil fuels] and that this greenwashed ESG fund is not the same thing as making a powerful moral and political statement like divestment," he said.

Weilerstein said he believes that divestment is possible if the Tufts community continues to put pressure on the administration. He said that conversations to establish a sustainability fund had been initiated a number of years ago, but the trustees at the time claimed that it was too expensive. After the divestment campaign, however, the fund’s implementation was no longer in doubt.

“That shows that if you get students organized, if you get people putting pressure on the university, then things can happen,” he said. “Things that they said couldn’t happen before now can happen.”

Hastings-Black said he hopes Tufts can have more of an impact in the world regarding climate change.

“I applaud Tufts continuing to reduce its campus carbon footprint, but I urge the university to take action as a ‘global citizen,’” Hastings-Black said. “Tufts must be an advocate for international action to fight climate change.