May 5, 2021

Committee Recommends Fossil Fuel Divestment to Princeton Trustees

By Donald Gilpin

The Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) will recommend to the University’s Board of Trustees (BOT) that the University divest and dissociate from “the highest greenhouse gas-emitting sectors of the fossil fuel industry” as quickly as possible and “dissociate from fossil fuel companies that deny climate change and/or spread climate disinformation.”

Partnerships with and investments in fossil fuel companies by Princeton University, with its $26 billion endowment, have been the focus of considerable debate and concern for at least   the past decade. Divest Princeton — a coalition of Princeton University students, faculty, and alumni — has continuously called for the University’s divestment from fossil fuel companies and has gathered more than 2,200 signatures on an open letter to Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber pledging “No Donations Until Divestment.”

Concern and activism seem to have increased at Princeton along with increasing worldwide distress over climate change. Most recently, an April 24 Earth Day rally — “Earth Day No Delay, Princeton Must Divest Today” — brought more than 100 people to the lawn in front of the Nassau Hall steps to call for action toward divestment by the Resources Committee and the BOT.

In its May 3 report to the CPUC, Resources Committee Chair Blair Schoene, associate professor of geosciences at Princeton, noted that the committee also is recommending to the BOT that Princeton University “establish criteria for conditional dissociation from fossil fuel companies that have not undertaken an acceptable path towards carbon neutrality,” and that the University “establish, implement, and sustain actionable criteria for dissociation” that accord with the three previous recommendations and are based on companies’ “current and prospective actions,” not on past behavior.

In his presentation to the CPUC, Schoene noted that the recommendations of the Resources Committee, which is composed of Princeton University students, faculty, and staff, were based on guidelines for considering proposals for divestment and dissociation that were established by the BOT in 1997.

Specifically, Schoene pointed out that the issue of climate change and how best to address it has been a significant concern on campus for many years, and that the subject of University partnerships with fossil fuel companies has been brought to the Resources Committee many times in recent years; that the actions of companies that spread climate disinformation and ignore the need to transition away from fossil fuels “contradict the University’s truth-seeking mission and evidence-based research values” and the values of the University’s 2019 Sustainability Action Plan and its goal to contribute to a future free of fossil fuels; and that a consensus in favor of divestment and dissociation is apparent in a November 2020 Undergraduate Student Government referendum where 82 percent of undergraduates polled voted in favor of conditional dissociation.

Schoene explained that dissociation would include divestment of all financial investments, terminating on-campus funding ties, and halting the purchase of products from those companies. 

The full report of the committee will be forwarded to the trustee finance committee and made public by May 10, and the trustees are expected to address the question of divestment in the coming months. When the question of fossil fuel divestment was reviewed by the Resources Committee in 2015, it did not recommend divestment.

Princeton University Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Jim Matteo wrote in the Daily Princetonian last month that the BOT would give “serious consideration” to the Resource Committee’s recommendations, but that the Board has sole responsibility for University policy on all investment matters and that “the Resources Committee’s recommendations will serve to inform the trustees’ decisions but will not determine them.”