May 7, 2013

Say yes to divest

Passage of divestment referendum shows student desire for University that values environment more than illusion of neutrality.

“What will you say when the referendum passes?” I asked my friend, a fellow member of Stop Funding Climate Change (SFCC), the night before the Student Government election results were released.

“Nothing. I’ll probably be reading,” he said.

Along with the University Climate Action Network, SFCC sponsored the divestment referendum on the Student Government ballot. The referendum asked, “Should the University shift its investment strategy to account for the environmental impact of oil, gas, and coal used by the companies it invests in?” 2,183 students voted yes.

I was with the same friend when we got word of the referendum numbers, and one glance his way was enough to reveal how deeply he was invested in the referendum’s success. He beamed along with the rest of us when the number was announced: 75 percent of student voters favored divestment.

Beyond the elation of this moment, there was nothing sweet about the referendum itself. As it happens, it may have come off as unnecessarily extreme, considering that most companies use fossil fuels in some way.

But, in fact, divestment only means taking University of Chicago investments out of the publicly traded companies that extract fossil fuels and hold the vast majority of the world’s proven coal, oil, and gas reserves. It’s a wholly reasonable proposal that seeks to undercut these companies’ power to continue the search for new hydrocarbons and to lobby the government for subsidies.

The referendum takes aim at the Kalven Report, which was drawn up in 1967 to establish the University’s political role—or lack thereof. The report claims that the University wishes to maintain a non-active role in world politics. Although this desire for neutrality is largely admirable, it isn’t possible in the case of divestment. When it comes to matters of investment, financial involvement amounts to complicity, which makes neutrality almost unattainable. Unfortunately, the administration hides behind the Kalven Report and considers environmental concerns political, and therefore irrelevant, when investing its endowment.

Paradoxically, the University’s claim to neutrality has allowed it to invest in companies that are deeply political: Companies involved in fossil fuel extraction are heavily embedded in the political arena and circulate large sums of money to lobby Congress. Their efforts have been undoubtedly effective; the federal subsidies they’ve obtained are currently hindering a large-scale shift toward sustainable energy use. By supporting these companies under the cover of political neutrality, the University partakes in the very partisanship it aims to avoid.

With the Kalven Report in mind, the referendum can be understood as a way to gauge how many students disagree with the University’s current stance, or its self-proclaimed lack of one. It will show the Board of Trustees that it should consider divestment as a conscientious move in the interest of its students, since climate change is becoming a very real concern among us—after all, our generation will inherit the bulk of the wreckage caused by the unsustainable culture of subsidized fossil fuel extraction.

Two years ago, students voted overwhelmingly to establish a Socially Responsible Investment Committee to make recommendations to the University’s endowment managers. With this most recent show of broad support, we demand to present our divestment proposal directly to the Board of Trustees this quarter. In doing so, we will need the support of an attentive student body and an active press—both of which we will keep informed about our progress with administrators.

We are not asking the University to take broad action on ethical investing—only on a case in which scientific consensus and student voice are shown to be a “party” of interest (to use a term President Zimmer used in a speech to Columbia University in describing exceptions to the Kalven Report). Administrators must see that the circumstances of climate change warrant a “crisis” mentality, and would therefore constitute grounds for an exception to Kalven Report restrictions. And, most importantly, they must realize that their actions are in fact playing an active role in world politics. When we invest our endowment dollars as a university, we effectively vote. From now on, we must make our investments line up with this latest vote.

Natalie Wright is a first-year in the College.