After months of campus controversy around the issue, Yale students voted to divest Yale’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
2,369 students voted in favor of the referendum — which called for the University to phase out its endowment investments in fossil fuel companies — and 485 students voted against the referendum, while 64 students abstained and 2,512 students did not vote. Sponsored by the Yale College Council, the online referendum was open for votes from Nov. 17 to Nov. 20. Because roughly 83 percent of voters supported divestment, the YCC will present a pro-divestment paper to the administration on behalf of the student body.
Two student groups, Fossil Free Yale and Students for a Strong Endowment, campaigned strongly over the past week to win student votes. While Students for a Strong Endowment argued that divestment from fossil fuel companies would render the endowment a political tool and harm the financial position of the University, Fossil Free Yale argued that an urgent need to address climate change should push Yale to take action.
“This extraordinary support, unprecedented among major university divestment campaigns is a testament to the moral force of the argument for fossil fuel divestment,” said Gabe Levine ’14, policy coordinator for Fossil Free Yale. “We are certain that both the administration and the [Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility] will take seriously the overwhelming enthusiasm that Yale students have now shown for taking on the most serious global, systemic crisis of our generation.”
YCC President Danny Avraham ’15 cautioned against expecting that the University will immediately take action after Wednesday’s results. However, he added that the referendum proved an efficient way for students to vocalize their stances on larger University issues.
Students interviewed after YCC’s release of the result said they were surprised to hear that over 50 percent of the student body participated in the referendum.
“Most of the time, you can’t get 2,700 students to do anything,” said Alina Aksiyote ’16, who said she was excited by the results. She praised the leaders of Fossil Free Yale for their success, adding that she was impressed by how hard they worked over the past 10 months to create a strong campaign.
The result of the referendum could receive national attention, Levine said. He added that the vote was not meant to pressure the administration, but instead to show University President Peter Salovey that divestment is “not a back-burner issue.”
Of 30 students interviewed, 19 said they voted to divest from fossil fuels. Nine students interviewed said they did not vote, one student abstained and only one voted not to divest.
Several students who voted to divest said that they see the move for divestment as symbolic rather than outcome-oriented. But many students who either abstained or opted not to respond to the referendum cited the lack of information and ambiguity of each side’s position.
Adil Hakeem ’17 said he chose not to vote because he does not know the specifics of how the University invests its endowment. Hannah Gonzales ’16 said she did not vote because she still felt too removed from the divestment debate to make an educated decision on it, despite having many friends involved in the issue.
Alex Fisher ’14, founder of Students for a Strong Endowment, characterized his group’s campaign as “remarkably successful.” While he noted his group did not have the size or the resources of Fossil Free Yale, Fisher said he believes its existence has changed the campus discussion about divestment.
“Naturally, it’s a disappointing result,” he said. “As we’ve seen at other universities, I expect the Yale Corporation will make the right decision that’s in the interests of the long-term financial stability of the University and not for short-term gestures.”
Moving forward on the issue, representatives from both pro-divestment and anti-divestment groups said they hope to continue a conversation on ethical investing at Yale.
The debate over divestment heated up on Nov. 8 when Students for a Strong Endowment was created to counter Fossil Free Yale, which was founded last year. On Nov. 12, campaigning from both sides officially began, and the two groups clashed in a town-hall debate the next day.
Though YCC referendums are not binding to the administration, they are intended to represent student opinion. The YCC adopts the position of a referendum if at least 50 percent of undergraduate students vote, if a simple majority of those who vote choose to uphold the proposition and if the number of students who choose to uphold the proposition represents at least one-third of Yale College. Because all stipulations were met in this case, the YCC will present a pro-divestment paper to the administration on behalf of the student body.
Caroline Smith ’14, who voted in favor of divestment, said that regardless of the outcome, the referendum offered students an opportunity to learn more about Yale’s endowment. She added that the YCC’s presentation of a pro-divestment paper to the administration will require administrators to respond with substantive answers.
Voting on the referendum closed at 9 p.m. on Wednesday evening. The YCC released the results of the referendum in an email to the student body at 11:35 p.m.