Debate is ramping up in preparation for the Yale College Council’s campus-wide referendum on fossil fuel divestment to be held Nov. 17.
Several days after Fossil Free Yale — a student group pushing for the University to phase out endowment investments in fossil fuel companies — submitted a pro-divestment statement to the YCC’s referendum website, a new student group known as Students for a Strong Endowment submitted a “con” statement on Friday. Challenging Fossil Free Yale, Students for a Strong Endowment argued against using the endowment to make political statements, an action that they said could establish “troubling” precedents for the University. In the days leading up to the referendum, members of Students for a Strong Endowment said they will try to raise awareness for their cause.
Until now, student discourse on divestment at Yale has been one-sided, Alex Fisher ’14, the founder of Students for a Strong Endowment, told the News, adding that Students for a Strong Endowment wants to stimulate a conversation rather than a lecture. While membership is informal, the group has roughly 15 to 20 students interested in joining, he said.
“Our underlying message is we accept and we understand why so many people are concerned with the environment and its future,” Fisher told the News. “[But] we don’t think you need to put at risk the long-term financial stability of the institution in order to make that point.”
According to the group’s statement, the primary purpose of Yale’s endowment is to support the University and fund its financial aid program, globally renowned faculty and world-class research.
The long-term success of Yale is linked to the growth of the endowment, Fisher said, adding that divesting from fossil fuels could limit the flexibility of investment options available to the Yale Investments Office.
“Supporting divestment would be a signal that these crucial institutional goals are no longer our first priority,” the group said in the statement.
Solene Goycochea ’14, a member of the Students for a Strong Endowment, said divestment would unnecessarily complicate Chief Investment Officer David Swensen’s investing decisions. Divestment could be more damaging to the University than to the fossil fuel companies, she said. She also pointed to the research that companies like British Petroleum and Shell conduct on sustainable energy.
If Yale were to divest from fossil fuels, the University would come under pressure to divest from other causes, the group wrote in the “con” statement.
“I am sorry that there are a number of students on campus who are short-sighted in their desire to manipulate the Yale endowment for a political goal,” Tyler Carlisle ’15, a member of the Students for a Strong Endowment, said.
In the coming days, the YCC will post any rebuttals from the “pro” and “con” sides on the referendum website. Groups will be allowed to begin campaigning for student support on Nov. 12, and the YCC will host a town hall for students to debate the issue on Nov. 13.
YCC communications director Andrew Grass ’16 said the YCC created the referendum process this year to empower student voice on campus, though he added that the YCC has not taken a position on the issue of fossil fuel divestment.
The referendum comes several months after the YCC received a petition from Fossil Free Yale in support of fossil fuel divestment that garnered 1,374 signatures.
Fossil Free Yale submitted a “pro” statement to the YCC referendum website on Nov. 3. asserting that the University has a moral obligation to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Furthermore, studies have shown that fossil free portfolios generate comparable returns to standard portfolios, the group said in the statement.
According to the stipulations outlined in the Ethical Investor, the University’s guidelines on ethical investing, there are two conditions for divestment: the companies must be causing grave social injury, and divestment must have the prospect of producing a positive change.
Students at Yale’s peer schools have also debated fossil fuel divestment during the past year. Though students at both Harvard and Brown expressed strong support for divestment through petitions and referenda, administrators at both schools decided against any action.
The referendum will be held from Nov. 17 to Nov. 20. Rebuttals from either side will be collected on Nov. 11.