At the doorstep of the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a group of students was in the 44th day of sit-in protesting MIT’s October decision not to divest its interests in fossil fuel companies.
The student activists are determined to keep the pressure on the famed research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We plan to sit-in for as long as it takes,” said Geoffrey Supran, a PhD student focusing on nanotechnology. “None of us want to be here, but the insufficiencies of MIT’s climate plan have left us with no choice.”
The fossil fuel divestment movement advocates selling off assets including stocks and bonds from companies involved in extracting fossil fuel to make a statement about global warming.
But on Oct. 21, MIT said dealing with climate change would “require intense collaboration across the research community, industry and government.” Divestment amounted to “a dramatic public disengagement,” the famed technology institute said in a statement.
“When we do research at MIT, we don’t just have an individual professor in a lab – we work with broader entities,” Maria Zuber, vice president of research at MIT, said in an email. “The goal is to try and convene as many entities as we can around the table to identify a solution, and we feel like we would have a much easier path towards getting companies to the table if we didn’t divest from them.”
Some students question the university’s approach.
“The stakes are too high and the odds too low to adopt an engagement strategy with no metrics or benchmarks for success, and no repercussions for companies who refuse to change,” Supran said in an email.
MIT is not alone. In recent years, a number other universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Brown,decided not to divest coal, oil and natural gas interests.
Some campuses chose to separate the social impact of divestment from the school’s teaching mission. Yale said in a statement that it will “have its greatest impact in meeting the climate challenge through its core mission: research, scholarship and education conducted by its faculty and students.”
However, financial impact is at the heart of the problem. Many universities say they are concerned that divesting will hurt their endowment returns.
Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, said in a 2013 statement, “The funds in the endowment have been given to us by generous benefactors over many years to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy.”
Patrick Collins, deputy director of public relations at Tufts University, said in an email that a university-wide divestment working group determined last year “that divestment would likely result in a significant reduction in operating funds for Tufts, having an immediate adverse impact on the Tufts educational experience.”
Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication at the University of Colorado, said in an email that the university’s board decided the alternatives suggested by divestment group were not “financially equivalent” to Colorado’s existing investments.
A research paper commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of America in 2015 showed that Harvard, Yale, MIT, Columbia and New York University would collectively lose more than $195 million if they divested of their equities in fossil fuels.
“It is a valid concern,” said Brett Fleishman, senior analyst at 350.org, the New York-based organization that advocates for fossil fuel divestment. He said university boards that refuse to divest due to financial reasons are doing their jobs and acting on their fiduciary duties “to focus on the returns of their portfolios.”
But Fleishman pointed out the coal industry has been in decline and coal stocks have dropped, and other fossil fuel stocks are heading in the same direction.
“They can say ‘we worry we will lose money if we divest,’ and we are saying ‘we worry that you will lose money if you haven’t divested,'” he said.
Although there are reports showing sustainable investments yielding positive results, another research paper done by Trillium Asset Management, an investment firm focused on exclusively in sustainable investing, showed that the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Trust Fund lost a half billion dollars in its fossil fuels investments in 2015. It is unclear how fossil fuel divestment has impacted university endowments, since some institutions only divested their equities in coal, but continued holding oil and gas shares.
Also, most universities that decided to divest only withdrew their direct investments in fossil fuel stocks, but maintained their major investments in pooled funds shared with other investors and managed by outside managers.
As of Sept. 1, 44 colleges and universities – 29 of them in the U.S. — had divested from fossil fuels, according to a divestment study conducted by the National Association of Scholars.
Stanford University and Georgetown University divested only their direct holdings in coal companies.
Lisa Lapin, associate vice president at Stanford University, acknowledged Stanford’s divestments “did not comprise a significant proportion of our $21.5 billion portfolio that would have resulted in a change in value.”
Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the New York-based National Association of Scholars, said that universities divest their direct holdings largely because of the lower costs. “There are fewer transaction costs and there is no broken contracts with fund managers.”
Peterson spent a year researching the divestment movement. Her report, released in November, shows that it is “growing but overstating.”
The report shows that only 34 percent of schools that announced divestments have fully shed their fossil fuel interests. Four universities, including Oxford University and Syracuse University, sold no investments at all since their divestment decisions, her study said.
Fleishman acknowledged that most universities only divest a small portion of direct holdings, but he said the small portions of divestment mean this part of the economy is “shifting away from fossil fuel.”