March 4, 2020

PU Group Calls For Fossil Fuels Divestment

By Donald Gilpin

Responding to reports on the increasingly devastating effects of climate change, a group of Princeton University students and alumni have called on the University to withdraw its investments entirely from the fossil fuel industry.

The group, which calls itself Divest Princeton, has submitted to the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Resources Committee a formal proposal which calls for divestment of the University’s $26 billion endowment from all coal, oil, and gas companies. The Resources Committee, which considers issues related to the endowment and concerns about socially-responsible investing, is scheduled to meet on March 10, and Divest Princeton is hoping for a response to its demands later this month.

The University does not disclose details about its specific investments, and Deputy University Spokesman Michael Hotckhkiss wrote in an email, “We do not comment on the makeup of the endowment’s portfolio.”

Divest Princeton, which was created in 2019, staged a demonstration on February 13, during which about 50 protestors gathered in front of Frist Campus Center before marching to Nassau Hall to present their divestment proposal to the CPUC. Activists also circulated a petition that currently has more than 820 signatures from students, faculty, and alumni, pledging to withhold donations to the University until it divests from fossil fuel companies.

Divest Princeton members also met with alumni on Princeton’s Alumni Day, February 22, handing out flyers and holding a teach-in. Another demonstration is planned for April 22, the 50th Earth Day, when Divest Princeton will team up with environmental groups on campus.

“I think it’s important that the University recognize that the interests and conduct of fossil fuel companies aligns neither with Princeton’s values nor the findings of its academic research,” said 2019 Princeton University graduate and Divest Princeton activist Lisa Sheridan. “For this reason we hope that the University will stop supplying fossil fuel companies with a social license to do severe harm to our planet and our communities.”

In its petition letter to Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Divest Princeton emphasizes “the
ever-worsening climate crisis,” which “threatens the lives of many millions of people, the stability of countries and civilizations, and the existence of countless known and unknown species.”

Noting far-reaching effects of climate change with the most vulnerable communities suffering most, the letter continues, “In light of these indisputable and existential threats, we can no longer contribute to the University while Princeton continues to invest in these companies, which are primarily drivers of the climate crisis.”

The petition goes on, citing the University’s motto. “Princeton admonishes its students to work ‘in the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity,’” the letter states. “We look to the University to embody the same ideal. Profiting from fossil fuels, at this point, is incompatible with acting in the nation’s service or the service of humanity.”

The letter also contends that by continuing to support fossil fuel companies, Princeton

University “undermines the world-class scientific research it produces on the subject of climate change.”

The CPUC Resources Committee considered the question of fossil fuel divestment in 2015, according to Hotchkiss, and determined “that complete disassociation was not feasible and would not advance our work where we can best make a lasting difference, through our research and teaching.” 

The guidelines of the Resource Committee require that “any divestment be part of a disassociation, or complete uncoupling, of the University from the company, region, or sector in question” and further state that “there is a strong presumption against the University taking a political position or playing an active role with respect to external issues of a political, social, or moral character.”

Twice in the past — in 1985 from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa and in 2006 from businesses supporting genocidal policies in Darfur, South Sudan — Princeton University has made decisions to divest. Divest Princeton argues that these precedents are relevant now with climate change as a humanitarian crisis on a global scale.

Many other colleges and universities across the country have faced demands from students, alumni, and/or faculty to divest from fossil fuel companies, but few institutions have committed to do so. No Ivy League university has agreed to divest, though all have faced serious ongoing pressure from groups demanding divestment. 

Yale and Columbia have agreed to partial divestment plans. Hundreds of divestment-demanding protestors disrupted the Harvard-Yale football game for more than an hour last November, with more than 50 dissenters arrested. The Harvard Corporation, one of Harvard’s two governing bodies, is currently reviewing a divestment proposal supported by an overwhelming majority of Harvard faculty.

In the meantime, as Divest Princeton awaits the CPUC Resource Committee’s decision,  indications from the University are not favorable for divestment.   

“As President Eisgruber said at the February meeting of the CPUC,” wrote Hotchkiss, “‘the set of guidelines that the University has around divestment set a very high bar, and they set a very high bar for divestment because the University, I think rightly, takes the view and it is my view as well, that we make a difference in the world through our teaching and research and the quality of that teaching and research, rather than by taking symbolic stands with our endowment. So the circumstances in which we would make a divestment decision are for that reason very limited.’”