I think that universities can play a unique role in leading public conversations on controversial issues. A university is a city on a hill, a place where light cannot be hid. It is a place that can lead by example and set precedent for others.
I have been thinking about this role because two institutions I have been closely associated with have now taken divergent paths. The issue in question is fossil fuel divestment. Should a university’s endowment and other funds be used only to maximize long-term returns to support the overall institution, or instead to also be used as instruments of social change and leadership? In particular, should a university with goals of building a more just and verdant future be supporting investments in an unsustainable industry that directly causes both economic growth and harm to people and the environment? There are clearly good arguments on either side, but I do think that some social issues stand out from others in terms of their generality and urgency – and climate change and the role of fossil fuels should be one of them.
Right now I am working for the University of Oxford, where an active student campaign has been pushing for divestment for some time now. Since moving to England I have been following their actions, but had been surprised by the limited level of support and awareness the cause has found among students and the community. The photo above is from Radcliffe Square on the day of a protest and awareness event; aside from a wonderful and dedicated group of organizers, hardly anyone appeared. Compare the same location two weeks earlier, when thousands of people populated the square to celebrate nothing more important than the first day of May. But in the wider community, many prominent academics have signed on, including several in my own research group.
Earlier this week, the university’s Council took a decision on their investments. Despite student pressure, I didn’t expect that anything would come of the meeting. But I was pleasantly surprised that the students’ hard work had been worthwhile. The university re-affirmed their commitment to socially responsible investing. They are committed to a policy of no direct investment in coal or oil sands, and to minimizing overall exposure to the energy sector. But they did not divest from extant holdings in these sectors, and as far as I can see have made only vague statements with regard to engaging on the issue in the future, or with regard to making more direct changes. It is a good start, and one that generated some international press coverage, but not one that conclusively resolves the issue. I am cautiously optimistic about the university’s commitment to leadership on this point.
I was much more disappointed by the choices made by my own undergraduate institution, Swarthmore College. It is a Quaker school, one whose founders included many prominent abolitionists and suffragists, and one whose ethos is ostensibly committed to moral leadership. It is also the birthplace of the fossil-fuel divestment movement and the alma mater of the United Nations’ climate chief, Christiana Figueres. Students had been putting pressure on the administration to make a similar commitment to divestment, but the institution’s board of managers took a decision in early May to not divest, and only to offer a chance for future donations or income to be allocated to fossil-fuel-free funds. The decision was covered by several international news outlets, but too late to effect change. It was a disgraceful retreat, and in my opinion a lost opportunity for leadership.
I have added my name to campaigns at both institutions, and have committed to withhold any donations to the latter until this policy changes. In my personal life, my savings are invested in broad market-tracking funds, but this summer I plan to sell them and change that. These are small nudges, but small nudges can lead to big changes, just as university divestment can encourage public conversations about the topic in the broader world.