Universities face rising pressure on divestment

Student activists in the United States and worldwide are ramping up pressure on universities to drop fossil fuel holdings from endowments, garnering support from alumni and faculty as they organise sit-ins and other forms of protest.

A student-led coalition called Divest Harvard is urging alumni to participate in a week-long series of events in April, including rallies, teach-ins and nonviolent direct action.

Hundreds of alumni of Oxford University in the UK, where officials last week deferred a decision on the matter, have pledged to withhold donations until their alma mater agrees to divest.

Meanwhile, this week more than 130 professors called on New York University to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry.

And Swarthmore College students, who have been occupying an administrative building since 19 March, were given a boost by United Nations climate change chief Christiana Figueres, a 1979 graduate who told the administration in an open letter that "it is financially prudent to be on the forefront of this decision".

College campuses aren't the only targets of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which has spread to more than 300 campuses in the United States, across Europe and into Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of South Africa in just a few years.

Last month, activists in 60 countries sponsored more than 450 events urging universities, governments, religious institutions and other groups to reduce investments in or reliance on the fossil fuel industry, which they say contributes to global warming.

Organisers say universities make especially good targets. "Campuses have all the ingredients," says Yossi Cadan, of, an international non-profit founded in 2012 to help coordinate divestment campaigns. "These are institutions producing scientific research, corroborating the causes of climate change. As educational institutions, they carry responsibility for the well-being of current and future younger generations."

By's count, 26 colleges worldwide have committed to divesting their fossil fuel holdings, including the New School in New York, which also announced plans to focus its curriculum on climate change, and the University of Sydney, which recently said it would drop some fossil fuel companies from its holdings, and reduce its carbon footprint. Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, USA, was the first to divest, in 2011.

Divestment campaign impact

A 2013 study by Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment concluded that the divestment campaign "could pose considerable reputational risk" to fossil fuel companies, but said the financial impact would be limited.

US university endowments hold approximately US$23 billion in energy-related assets, a report commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of America estimates. About 4% of university endowment holdings, on average, are in fossil fuels, says Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner of a San Francisco venture capital firm.

Most US schools that have committed to divestment are small, with relatively modest endowments. At Brevard College in North Carolina, which recently pledged to divest by 2018, less than 4% of its US$25 million endowment is invested in fossil fuels. President David Joyce said the trustee vote was a "symbolic step to increase public awareness of climate change".

Last spring, Stanford University became the wealthiest US university to agree to divest from coal companies. At US$24.1 billion, its endowment was the fourth largest among US universities in 2014.

Swarthmore College, which posted a US$1.9 billion endowment, has agreed to put fossil fuel divestment on the agenda for its May board meeting. Student activists are now working to refine their proposal to phase out divestments over several years.

"We know that divestment can’t happen overnight," organisers Stephen O'Hanlon and Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland said in an email to University World News. But "Mountain Justice is prepared to keep up the pressure until the board commits to beginning that process".

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and co-founder of, on 26 March joined the Swarthmore sit-in. "Something's wrong when the Rockefeller Brother Foundation is not invested in fossil fuels, but Swarthmore College is," he said in a campus speech.

Harvard, which boasts the largest endowment – US$35.9 billion last year – and Yale, which reported a US$23.9 billion endowment in 2014, so far have not been persuaded by pressure from the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Movement leaders released data showing that Harvard had increased its investments in oil and gas companies last year even as protests were gaining momentum.

Harvard President Drew Faust in 2013 released a letter saying endowments are created to "advance academic aims" and not "to impel social or political change". She also said divestment would have little impact on fossil fuel companies but would hurt Harvard's bottom line.

Preparing to make more noise

Now activists at both schools are preparing to make more noise. A group called Fossil Free Yale is keeping quiet on specifics, but has given officials until 1 April to state how they would address the injustices of their investments. If they don't, the group is "committed to take direct action in line with the escalation of the nationwide movement" organiser Tristan Glowa told
University World News.

At Harvard, organisers are urging students, alumni and faculty members to attend "action training" sessions if they intend to participate in a non-violent direct action during Harvard Heat Week, to be held from 12 to 17 April.

The event has attracted support from faculty, students and hundreds of alumni, including philosopher and activist Cornel West, actress Natalie Portman and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu, who received an honorary doctorate in 1984.

"We're trying to show Harvard that there's this huge support base... (that) these people are willing to act, to say 'Yes, we would like Harvard to divest as soon as possible'," said Ben Sorscher, a student outreach coordinator for Divest Harvard.

"We're hoping to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry so they don't wield this huge influence" over our campuses, whether through investments, research funding or other means.

Leaders of the campaign for fossil fuel divestment say it is the fastest-growing movement in history.

The movement also is frequently compared to the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, when student demonstrators called on their universities to divest from the South African government and companies doing business there to protest the South African government's system of racial segregation.

Those protests eventually led the government to begin dismantling its policy in 1990. But the anti-apartheid movement began decades earlier, says historian Angus Johnston, who studies US student activism.

"We're in the early stages of addressing climate change nationally and globally," says Johnston, a lecturer at City University of New York. The fossil-free movement "is beginning to see victories but it's not at a point where it is sort of omnipresent and capturing the imagination of the nation".

* Photo credit: Dollar Photo Club