Faculty members seek fossil fuel divestment

This story was originally published in the April 20 print issue.

Additional reporting by Ellen Glickman.

A petition was released among faculty urging Mason to fully divest from fossil fuels.

The petition contains a letter addressed to Mason president Ángel Cabrera and the George Mason University Foundation president Janet Bingham. According to the letter, the GMU Foundation approximately holds 2% of its assets in fossil fuels and fully divesting may be financially advantageous to the university.

The petition was created by Dr. Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication, in collaboration with other professors. As of publication, the petition contained 56 signatures, including three students. If Mason divests, it would become the first college in Virginia to do so, and the divestment would total approximately $1.2 million.

Some faculty signed the petition with the immediate future in mind. According to English professor David Kuebrich, this petition is especially timely because of the upcoming presidential election in the United States as well as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. However, Kuebrich recognizes long term implications as well.

“I think that every human being right now has to somehow realize that our planet is facing the most important crisis – this is the most important human rights issue in history, and I want to do whatever I can to make sure that people today and future generations have a planet where they can live comfortably and thrive, and I think that’s what the petition is asking people to do,” Kuebrich said.

Some signees are environmentally active outside of Mason and took the opportunity to bring that fight to the school. English professor Michelle LaFrance said she frequently volunteers with regional parks and local environmental causes such as cleaning trash from Lake Accotink.

“We are destroying our planet and the only way that we can stop doing that is if we stop relying so heavily on fossil fuel, which means we need to invest in renewable energy sources,” LaFrance said. “So that’s why I signed it. We have to do it. I think we’re going to be very quickly out of options if we don’t make choices that change the course of our direct future very, very quickly.”

While many professors signed the petition to support the environment, some signees were thinking financially. English teaching assistant Sean Pears said that though he is not environmentally active, he signed the petition for a variety of reasons.

“I guess I would say that I think that a university like George Mason…it’s an organization that I think plans on the order of 10, 20, 30, 50 years and any organization, any institution that’s planning on that kind of time frame has a responsibility to think about the effects of climate change,” Pears said. “But also the way in which their financial portfolio is going to be affected by the inevitable consequences of climate change, both changes to our climate and to the physical world, but also inevitable policy changes that I think will happen even if in the near term they may or may not.”

According to professor of Public Policy Jessica Heineman-Pieper, divesting from fossil fuel takes a stand against more than climate change as well.

“I signed because I’m aware of the damage we’re doing to fossil fuel excavation exploitation, and I want to be part of resisting our energy paradigm,” Heineman-Pieper said. “I’m also aware of the human rights violations and other kinds of violence that most if not all of the large…industries engage in on the ground and areas where they find resources they want to exploit even if the population doesn’t want that.”

University divestment is a cause activists are seeking across the nation. Twenty U.S. colleges have committed to fossil fuel divestment, according to Fossil Free, a branch of 350.org that campaigns for divestment.

Last May, Stanford University withdrew its entire investment in the coal industry. Fossil Free Stanford played a role in the final decision of the Stanford Advisory Panel of Investment Responsibility and Licensing. The university’s Statement on Investment Responsibility states the even though APIRL’s main responsibility is to maximize investment returns, they may consider a corporation’s possible “social injury” in their decision making.

“‘We believe this action provides leadership on a critical matter facing our world and is an appropriate application of the university’s investment responsibility policy,’” said Steven A. Denning, chairman of the Stanford Board of Trustees, in the press release on Stanford’s website.

Harvard University, which has the largest endowment of any U.S. college at $36 billion, chose not to divest, despite student protests. Drew Faust, the university’s president, cited academic and political reasons for not divesting.

In a Fossil Fuel Divestment Statement in 2013, posted on Harvard’s website, Faust wrote that divestment would undermine Harvard’s purpose as an academic institution.

“[W]e maintain a strong presumption against divesting investment assets for reasons unrelated to the endowment’s financial strength and its ability to advance our academic goals,” Faust wrote.

She also said divestment is a political action, and as such, Harvard should not participate.

“Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the university into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change,” Faust wrote.

Harvard’s president was also concerned about the possible hypocrisy concerned with divestment.

“I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day,” she wrote.

She encouraged other methods to combat climate change.

“In the case of fossil fuel companies, we should think about how we might use our voice not to ostracize such companies but to encourage them to be a positive force both in meeting society’s long-term energy needs while addressing pressing environmental imperatives,” Faust wrote.

Susan Van Leunen, director of finance for the GMU Foundation, said all investment decisions are made to benefit Mason students and faculty. While they have not decided to divest from fossil fuels, Van Leunen said the Foundation has about $1.5 million of its assets in sustainable ventures.

“The foundation and its board are investment stewards of the foundation’s endowment and have a fiduciary responsibility to put the interests of the endowment beneficiaries first,” Van Leunen said via email. “…As investments stewards of the endowment, the foundation must balance the need for financial returns with competing objectives. The conversation regarding how this goal may be achieved is just beginning.”

Thomas Lovejoy, a Mason University Professor of environmental science and policy, signed the Mason petition, and said divestment is the moral move for the university.

“I see this as different from the pre-Apartheid South Africa disinvestment issue where there was actual question as to whether that could hurt the disadvantaged by affecting their employment,” Lovejoy said via email. “I believe that as an institution of learning and one seriously engaged in sustainability issues, it is incorrect and insincere to have investments in fossil fuels.”

Jagadish Shukla, director of Mason’s climate dynamics program, said other universities have a responsibility to take action against climate change.

“Every academic institution that has an understanding of the climate problem should express their understanding through actions like this,” Shukla said.

While divestment will undoubtedly have some financial impact, Shukla said non-monetary impacts would be of larger significance.

“Withdrawing money definitely has a direct effect. The magnitude of that effect, I cannot tell you,” Shukla said. “But in addition to actual dollar numbers, it has another impact. It sends a message, a scientific message.”

Shukla said the economic impact of divestment was not his reason for signing. He said the message is what was most important to him.

“I want to get a message to society and government that we here at George Mason, we understand climate science, and we’re very concerned about it,” Shukla said.

Photo Credit: Amy Rose