This week, divestment activists at Cambridge University responded with outrage when a leaked draft of the University’s own “Divestment Working Group” report restated its rejection of the misguided policy. According to the Financial Times:
“Cambridge university is planning to reject divesting its £6.3bn endowment fund from oil companies despite huge pressure from students and staff to shun fossil fuels, according to a document seen by the Financial Times. The draft paper, written by a working group created to consider divestment, says the university should avoid the most polluting industries such as tar sands and coal in line with its current policy. But it does not explicitly recommend pulling out of all fossil fuels, in a blow to campaigners at the university.”
Despite the fact that this will be the third time that Cambridge’s working group has rejected full divestment, Cambridge’s Zero Carbon Society rebelled against the news, holding a march on campus, resigning from the working group, calling the report a “sham,” and maligning university administrators.
The leaked plan, however, simply reiterated the university’s policy of avoiding investments in oil sands, as well as a commitment to operate with greater transparency and to allocate 10% of the endowment fund to what it considers environmental, social, and governance (ESG) funds. The campus divest group, Zero Carbon Society, attempted to lay blame on the University Council for bias, yet the university’s actual reason for rejecting divestment is far more mundane, as per their 2016 announcement to the same effect:
“As is the case with many other charitable institutions, the University holds most of its investment portfolio indirectly. The overwhelming majority of investments (outside individual property assets) are managed on a discretionary basis by external investment managers selected and monitored by the University’s Investment Office, with the oversight of the Investment Board. In this context, the direct exclusion of individual investments that are otherwise legal is considered to be neither an appropriate ethical, nor indeed a practical, policy.
“Indeed, a tokenistic approach may be counterproductive, as there is no guarantee that a desired outcome could be achieved merely by selling a particular share or other investment. Instead, the University intends where possible to pursue a constructive process of engagement and, given the Office’s intermediated investment model, reliance will be placed on working with its selected investment managers.”
Though the University itself is still resisting wholesale divestment, individual colleges do have the ability to set their own policy. Last week, Peterhouse College set out its intention to divest from fossil fuels, an act that could create new risk for donations to the college. Luckily, the University of Cambridge has rejected costly divestment once again, defending the true interests of the students who rely on scholarships and the staff who rely on pensions.