Features and Occasionals

Divesting U

By catalyst

Investments are an important part of the economy. They keep business doors open and communities running smoothly. But what happens if you step back, look at what your investments are doing and don’t like what you see? University of Utah students Matt Kirkegaard and Max Stiefel know the feeling and are sounding the call to “Divest the U.”

Kirkegaard, a sophomore in the Environmental and Sustainability and Political Science programs at the University of Utah and Stiefel, a senior in Economics and Environ­mental Studies, have taken a critical look at what the University of Utah is doing with investors’ money. Based on what they found and what they have observed of other universities, they decided it was time to begin a petition to stop the Uni­ver­sity from continuing investments in fossil fuel companies.

In December of 2012, Bill McKibben visited Salt Lake City as the last stop on his Rolling Stone-sponsored “Do the Math” tour. The tour’s objective was to get people to take a closer look at university investments, to see what the school is doing with their money, and to take a stand to divest from fossil fuels.

Kirkegaard and Stiefel had had the idea to start their divestment campaign long before attending McKibben’s lecture, but it wasn’t until after the lecture that the petition and the campaign began to gain momentum. We recently spoke with Kirkegaard.

Where did the idea to start a divestment program come from and when did it begin?

Divestment as an idea began in earnest during the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s. Moving against fossil fuels, divestment was first strongly advocated by Bill McKibben and his organization 350.org. After a few campaigns started popping up in the Northeast, 350.org began the “Do the Math” Tour, advocating for divestment.

When I heard that the U of U was the final stop on that tour, I knew we couldn’t let the opportunity go to waste. I waited for others to begin the divestment campaign at first, but when no one did, I approached my friend Max Stiefel about the idea and together we founded the student group Fossil Free U a few days before McKibben came, to begin working for divestment. Our public campaign is only three months old.

What have been the most successful means of getting the word out and getting people involved?

Word of mouth, Facebook, presentations and tabling have all been quite effective, but each serves different purposes. If you are just looking for signatures, tabling is probably the best option. But if you are trying to recruit volunteers to help in the effort, you really need to talk with people directly or make a presentation to make your case. Part of the battle is getting people to understand the issue because there are so many misconceptions that immediately come to mind with divestment.

For example, most people assume it will place an immense financial burden on the U, they assume it will decrease scholarship money, or will raise tuition. All of these are simply false. Estimates show the negative effect on the endowment will be less than 1/100th of 1% (0.0034% to be exact) and scholarships are endowed and bound by contract that cannot be broken due to a change in investment policy. There will be, at worst, a miniscule financial impact on the university if divestment in fossil fuel companies occurs.

How active are those who are involved, or does involvement stop with a signature for most people?

For most, it does stop at a signature, but our team is dedicated and those who are involved are unwai­vering in their commitment and dedication.

Just how deeply invested is the University of Utah in fossil fuels? What would it do to the fossil fuel companies and to the U if the U were to divest today?

We don’t know and can’t know exactly how invested we are in the fossil fuel industry. The details of our endowment are not public. However, as the University has diverse investments, we do not expect investments in fossil fuel companies are a large portion of the endowment. The only estimate I have heard is from the Responsible Endowments Coalition’s executive director, Dan Apfel. He estimates that most colleges have in the range of 3.5-5.5% of their endowments in fossil fuels, give or take a few percentage points.

If the U divested today, it would demonstrate our commitment to sustainability is an integral part of our identity as a university. It would show that the administration under­stands it makes no sense to invest millions in the reduction of emissions on campus while simultaneously investing in the companies whose business is the production of the fuels driving climate change. It would show that just as we took a stand against apartheid in the 1980s, we can take a stand against an even larger issue threatening our future and the future of posterity. It would tell the world we do not support the burning of unsustainable fossil fuels that will devastate our world through the disruption of our climate.

We aren’t going to bankrupt Exxon. But we can help catalyze a movement, spurring other colleges, churches, cities and even states to divest and remove the social license of fuels that are ruining the stable climate that civilization has relied on for millennia. The University of Utah can’t do it alone, but for a large, respected, Western university like ours to divest would be a major step, adding tremendous momentum to an already growing movement.

What are you hoping the University will invest in once they make the shift from fossil fuels?

Since we invest through mutual funds and do not pick and choose most companies we invest in, it may be unfair to tell the University what to invest in since the Investment Management Team does not generally invest by individual company or even economic sector. All we are asking for is that our endowment not invest in companies with five times more carbon than can be safely burned. They should invest wherever they can make a profit, as long as they are not investing in the industry that is irrevocably destabilizing the world which all people rely on without providing solutions.

This is not about some abstract “love of nature;” our university should not invest in the industry that is ruining the climate for us and our children. Such investments do not support the preservation as life as we know it, the principles of the university, or the future of its graduates.

This article was originally published on March 29, 2013.