Wash. U. addresses Fossil Free, will not divest
Chancellor Mark Wrighton announced that Washington University will not divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies in a statement Saturday.
The announcement comes in response to specific requests from Fossil Free WashU, an umbrella campaign operating under the guidance of environmental activism organization Green Action and calling for the University to immediately begin the five-year process to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. The board of trustees reviewed the requests made to University administrators and will not change its investment policy.
“From time to time, the board of trustees has been called upon to make endowment investment decisions related to specific issues of concern to University community members and/or to the public more broadly. The longstanding policy of the board of trustees has been that the investment policy will not be changed or used to support political, social, or other agendas,” Wrighton said in a statement.
Wrighton’s statement comes after years of protests from students calling for divestment, increased financial transparency and reform. Sit-ins, protests and petitions from students, faculty and alumni have led to increased pressure on the administration to respond to calls for change. In the group’s most recent campaign, Fossil Free WashU has launched both student and faculty petitions, which have garnered over 970 and 64 signatures, respectively.
In a statement to Student Life, Fossil Free WashU highlighted several concerns with the University remaining invested in fossil fuel companies, namely Wrighton’s indication that the University’s Investment Management Company will not consider political or social agendas in making investment decisions.
“This negligence clouds the very real impacts of fossil fuel injustice and climate change in language about ‘social agendas’ reminiscent of that surrounding climate denial. The chancellor cannot claim that divesting from fossil fuels would be a political decision without also acknowledging that investing in them is inherently political,” the statement reads.
“How we use the endowment to address these challenges is the source of division of opinion,” Wrighton said in an interview with Student Life.
Previously, Washington University had indirect relationships with several fossil fuel companies through former members of the board of trustees. Two trustees who had close ties to the fossil fuel industry either resigned or were not re-elected to the board last year. Greg Boyce, the former CEO of Peabody Energy, abruptly resigned from his position on the board of trustees Nov. 30, 2016. Former Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer was not re-elected at the end of his second term on June 30, 2016.
While the University will not divest from fossil fuel companies, the Chancellor announced the creation of an advisory committee on the endowment comprised of students, faculty and alumni that will “advise the Chancellor on how best to realize the call for transparency and socially responsible investment” of University assets, according to Wrighton’s statement. The committee will likely be in place by fall 2017.
Following the departure of Kimberly G. Walker, the search for a new chief investment officer is still underway, and the University’s goal is to fill the position by the end of summer 2017. The chancellor will discuss the development of an advisory committee with the new officer. In addition to the aforementioned changes, Wrighton announced the renaming of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) during its 10-year anniversary celebration. I-CARES will now be known as the International Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, which he noted reflects expanded efforts to research and address climate change.
Wrighton cited several reasons for remaining invested in fossil fuel companies, including the goal of operating in accordance with University investment policy. Wrighton noted that he issued a statement not only to respond to Fossil Free WashU but also to educate the Washington University community on the specifics of the endowment.
“Frankly, I intended it to be a tutorial, which is a part of my commitment to transparency. The tutorial shares that the primary objective of the endowment is to help us fulfill the mission of the University. The board decides how the endowment will be invested,” he said. “The board makes the decisions about the policies related to investing and they also set the policy on spending.”