Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=211909
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Environmentalist Bill McKibben.


Chicago universities not yet on board with national fossil fuel divestment campaign

by John Santore
Nov 29, 2012



John V. Santore/MEDILL

Bill McKibben discusses his university divestment campaign.



John V. Santore/MEDILL

 

Chicago university students respond to McKibben's calls for divestment.


Officials at Chicago's leading universities are not yet willing to comment on a new national environmental campaign calling for them to purge their investment portfolios of energy company stock.

Climate change activist Bill McKibben has been touring the nation, often speaking to sold-out crowds, and promoting the idea that universities need to stop supporting fossil fuel companies. He made his case to a Chicago audience of nearly 1,000 at the Athenaeum Theater Wednesday.

Spokespeople for DePaul University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern University declined to provide details about their investments, and said their respective institutions do not directly manage investment portfolios, handing them off to financial managers or including them in larger investment pools, like hedge funds or mutual funds.

City College of Chicago was the exception. Spokeswoman Ana Vargas said that “as a public community college, our district is prohibited from investing in equities," which can include fossil fuel companies.

In 2008, McKibben co-founded 350.org, a global organization focused on preventing climate change. On his current tour, McKibben argues that 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground to prevent catastrophic changes to the climate.

In an article published last summer, McKibben wrote that divestment from fossil fuel companies is needed to weaken their public respectability and political clout. He believes that would allow governments to tax carbon, ushering in a new era of green energy.

McKibben said he hopes student activists will force their administrations to act, much like students led a divestment campaign that helped topple South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s.

Several local university spokespeople emphasized their university’s commitment to environmental sustainability and ethical investing.

University of Chicago News Director Jeremy Manier said the university makes sure to invest only in companies that have “no history of illegal behavior and have a strong track record of meeting the professional norms of their businesses.”

Robert Kozoman, DePaul’s executive vice president, said that, “DePaul had made a public statement, many times, about the importance of sustainability in its many forms.” 

And Thomas Hardy, the University of Illinois executive director for university relations, said that the university's “active endowment does not have any direct investment in coal companies.” 

“There’s no policy to that effect,” Hardy added, “but the endowment doesn’t have any direct investments in coal companies.”

Hardy said he was unaware if investments exist in energy companies that produce other forms of fossil fuels, such as oil or natural gas.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, noted that Northwestern’s board previously “adopted a policy prohibiting investing in several specific foreign companies that were operating in Darfur, but in the 15 years that
I've been at Northwestern, the committee has never adopted a policy prohibiting investments in an entire sector, such as energy.”

“I don't know whether the committee would be receptive to a policy,” Cubbage said, “but it would definitely be an unusual step.”

Northwestern student and activist Paige Humecki thinks unusual times require unusual measures.

“The planet’s never really faced a problem like this before,” she said. Humecki is co-president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, a campus group connecting engineering students with sustainability projects. She was one of many students in the audience at McKibben’s event, and strongly supports divestment.

“It seems pretty bizarre to be at a university, investing in our futures, when they’re literally investing against our futures,” Humecki said.

Tina Verrilli, a DePaul student activist at the event, said she will be pushing McKibben's campaign on her campus.

“I think the Depaul board of trustees needs to know that the students demand a more sustainable future,” Verrilli said. “We demand clean energy, we demand less carbon emissions. We’re going to do everything we can to get it.”

Paul Kim, a University of Chicago student, used time after the event to connect with students from other schools.

“The University of Chicago has often been very resistant to demands from its students and other stakeholders to divest from things that have violated the values of those stakeholders,” Kim said. “However, we think that this issue is one of such moral urgency and clarity, and I think that we as students of the University of Chicago can compel the university to divest from fossil fuels.”

McKibben said that divestment campaigns have been launched at over 100 schools in the last three weeks.

He said he’s not asking students for quick victories, but instead to make divestment “the high profile issue on campus. Why are we in bed with this rogue industry? Why are we paying for our education with investments in companies whose business plan guarantees there will not be a planet on which to carry out that education?”

He highlighted Unity College in Maine, which recently voted to divest, and noted that 2,600 Harvard students backed divestment as well.

However, Kevin Galvin, Harvard’s director of news and media relations, stated the university wasn’t on board.

“Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels,” Galvin said.

McKibben expects a struggle.

“I think it’s going to be powerful and painful sometimes,” he said. “We’re asking good people who say they share their concern about this kind of stuff to actually do something about it and take a stand.”