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February 10, 2017

The Real Trend in Fossil Fuel Divestment: School Rejections and Fading Student Interest

Over the last few years, a majority of Boards of Trustees, Administrators, and University Presidents have come to the same conclusion about fossil fuel divestment: the cost is too high and the benefits are illusory.   Now, even the students pushing for divestment are throwing down their ‘fossil free’ posters and dropping out of the failing movement.

Ithaca College in upstate New York is just the latest example. According to its college newspaper, The Ithacan, the campus’ divestment movement has slowed to a halt, stating “In 2013, there was a large divestment movement called IC Divest on the college’s campus,“ but now  “the movement has dwindled, and the college still invests in fossil fuels.”

Ithaca’s remaining divestment activists blame this fading interest on “the structure of academia” instead of a general acceptance of the former President’s stated reasoning on divestment:

“We believe that continuing to support the college with our current policies and investment portfolio allows us to support these different endeavors around reducing our footprint … and that’s a more direct impact than divesting.“

Students may also be backing away from the movement because the numbers used to publicize its success have been characterized as demonstrably false by even left-leaning outlets such as Mother Jones.  It’s also possible that these students want a more tangible way to mitigate climate change since, it the words of Harvard Business Professor Robert Stavins, “Divestment doesn’t affect the ability of fossil fuel companies to raise capital.”

It’s the same story out west, where Colorado College’s divestment group has thrown in the towel due to a “lack of participation.”  According to an article in the school’s own newspaper:

“’Throughout the years there have been a number of proposals to the Board of Trustees, and they have basically been shut down every time,’ said Scott Broadbent, a senior graduating in December. ‘And so I think a lot of kids grew tired… Basically it all fizzled out.’”

To be clear, Colorado College “shut down” these proposals because of the impact divestment would have on its endowment returns—returns that account for no less than 17 percent of the college’s annual spending.   Prof. Fischel of the University of Chicago Law School reached a similar conclusion, finding divested portfolios could experience up to a 23 percent loss over the course of 50 years.

According to Colorado College’s President Jill Tiefenthaler, cost was only part of the reason the college’s Board of Trustees pushed back on fossil fuel divestment. In a recent interview she noted that the precedent and the actual impact of divesting were also unconvincing to them:

“They worry that it may be fossil fuels now, it could be some other area later and then what are you left with in terms of divesting. I think they also wonder what real impact it has on the issue.”

The University of Denver reached a similar conclusion recently, when it stated divestment would not only be costly and ineffective, it would unfairly stigmatize and industry we all rely upon every day to live our lives.

Like the administrations at Harvard, MIT, University of Michigan, and neighboring university Cornell, the leadership at both Ithaca and Colorado College chose to continue pursuing other, more effective,  campus sustainability practices instead of wasting the University’s resources on fossil fuel divestment.