October 5, 2022

PU Will Divest and Dissociate from Range Of Fossil Fuel Companies

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University announced last week that it would eliminate all its endowment holdings in fossil fuel companies and would dissociate from 90 companies involved in high-polluting facets of the fossil fuel industry.

The University’s Board of Trustees had announced in May 2021 its intention to dissociate from “companies engaged in climate disinformation campaigns or that are involved in the thermal coal and tar sands segments of the fossil fuel industry.” The criteria used to determine companies to be put on the dissociation list were based on recommendations from a panel of faculty experts.

Dissociation includes refusal to invest in a corporation, according to the University, as well as “refraining, to the greatest extent possible, from any relationships that involve a financial component with a particular company,” including “soliciting or accepting gifts or grants from a company, purchasing the company’s products, or forming partnerships with the company that depend upon the exchange of money.”

Princeton University has current or recent financial relationships with 10 of the 90 companies they have listed as subject to dissociation, including Exxon Mobil, which has had a research partnership with the University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment since 2015.

In order to support energy research at Princeton and to compensate for research funding lost because of dissociation, the University will establish a new fund. “Princeton will have the most significant impact on the climate crisis through the scholarship we generate and the people we educate,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “The creation of this new fund is one of several ways that the University is helping to provide Princeton researchers with the resources they need to pursue this work.”

The board of trustees vote last month was the culmination of “a two-year process that included input from stakeholders across the campus community,” according to a Princeton University press release. Students, faculty, and alumni, however, have been advocating for fossil fuel divestment for almost a decade, including a September 23 rally in front of Nassau Hall led by the campus activist group Divest Princeton.

“This is a tremendous step for the Princeton community, as divestment has been on the table for almost a decade and has had especially broad support in the past few years, while I was a student,” said Hannah Reynolds, 2022 Princeton graduate, in a press release from Divest Princeton, where she is co-coordinator emeritus. “We filed a legal complaint in February of this year with the state attorney general in New Jersey, alongside four other University divestment campaigns at Yale, MIT, Vanderbilt, and Stanford, about our University’s failure to divest. We hope that other universities will join in holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their egregious pollution and continued climate disinformation, and put their students and alumni first.”

Karl Kusserow, associated faculty at Princeton’s High Meadows Environmental Institute and American art curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, was the leader of a group of more than 160 faculty and staff calling for divestment. He applauded the University’s announcement, stating, “These commitments, advocated by diverse faculty and staff, constitute an important step in bringing Princeton’s actions into alignment with its moral aspirations and with all the important work it supports on climate.”

The Princeton University announcement also noted that the University is committed “to achieving a net-zero endowment portfolio over time,” and the Princeton University Investment Company (PRINCO) “will also ensure that the endowment does not benefit from any future exposure” to fossil fuel companies.

Earlier this year the University reported a total exposure to the fossil fuels industry of about $1.7 billion or 4.4 percent of the total endowment, with about $13 million directly invested in fossil fuel businesses.

Divest Princeton Co-Coordinator Nate Howard, a Princeton High School graduate now a Princeton University sophomore, also praised the University’s decision, but cautioned that there is still work to be done and lessons to be learned about activism. “While the trustees fail to acknowledge this activism, Divest Princeton is proud of what has been accomplished, and although they have taken a critical step, Princeton still falls short,” he said. “Divest Princeton will keep fighting for our goals of full divestment and the end to all fossil fuel funding of research on campus.”

Howard pointed out that Shell and BP, two of the largest fossil fuel companies, were not on the dissociation list and that both have been funding research at Princeton. “We’re saying that the University needs to actually stick with its pledge,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet. We dissociated from Exxon. That’s awesome, really great news. But we did not dissociate from BP or from Shell, so there are definitely things to be done.”
Describing the decision as “the work of multiple generations of students, including alumni and others who got involved,” Howard noted, “Many people have made this happen. The University is trying to make it sound like they just came to the right decision.”
He went on, “Activism works. When you push for change you can succeed. They told us that it was not possible up until the day they did it. They kept saying ‘No.’ The message to other activists is ‘Keep up the work and change is definitely possible.”
Princeton University senior Anna Hiltner, co-coordinator emeritus of Divest Princeton, emphasized the importance of the divestment decision and the crucial role of recent years of activism. “This is a huge deal for Princeton and for the world,” she said. “When Divest Princeton started, not many people knew what to think of divestment, or what it meant. We were told that it wasn’t possible. But after organizing for a couple of months, we saw the conversations in classes changing, and began to receive overwhelming support.”
She continued, “I want students, faculty, staff, and alumni across the country to look at this decision and know that it is possible to enact change at their institutions. In a climate crisis, we don’t have the luxury of backing down.”