Yale talks divestment: Counter-point

On Sunday, we will have the opportunity to vote on whether we believe that Yale should divest from the fossil fuel industry. By voting no, we can show that we value the University’s financial stability above the desire to make a political statement.

I do not seek to contest the science of global warming. It poses significant long-term challenges, and I see leading research universities like our own as natural places in which those challenges might be addressed.

But fossil fuels cannot simply be understood in the context of their production given their utility in our daily lives. Indeed, it would be a “grave social harm” to destabilize those companies that we depend on to light our houses and power our cars. Struggling companies would be far less likely to innovate, and to keep developing the technologies that would reduce our long-term dependency on carbon.

Divestment would have a human impact, too. Rising energy costs caused by a weak fossil fuel industry would render many ordinary people unable to pay their bills and heat their homes. Gestures have consequences.

Those calling for divestment do very little to avoid using fossil fuels in their own lives, since they have not yet worked out a way to take such action. Instead, they have chosen to project their desire for change onto Yale; to demand an institutional gesture when they are incapable of making an individual one.

But Yale’s endowment is not a political fund. Its investments seek not to make profound ideological statements, but to deliver consistent returns for the University, so that Yale can fund institutional necessities like faculty salaries, financial aid and world-class research.

Divestment would clearly limit the range of investment possibilities open to our fund managers. Harvard’s President Drew Faust identified this lost flexibility as a key reason for refusing to implement divestment at her own school. Even potential investments in renewable energy might be scuppered if an appropriate hedge could no longer be found in the fossil fuel sector.

There are very specific occasions when Yale avoids investing in companies for ethical reasons, but these are not a precedent for what Fossil Free Yale now proposes. The wrongs of apartheid, for instance, are not called into question. In contrast, the merits of fossil fuel companies are a matter of dispute; emissions need to be balanced against the benefits we derive from production. The fact that we are having this conversation is proof enough that any decision to divest would be taking a side in a political debate.

Most importantly, divestment would set a deeply troubling precedent. It would suggest that any area of the University’s investment portfolio could be divested so long as the associated student campaign was sufficiently enthusiastic. Global warming matters. So do sweatshops. So does child labor. So does the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.

To act on one of these issues alone seems odd and singular. To act on all of them would render our endowment impotent.

There are other reasons for concern regarding divestment. In recent weeks, Harvard’s fossil free campaign has moved beyond the rhetoric of moderation. It is now actively encouraging Harvard donors to withhold their contributions to the university. At the same time, Brown students staged an aggressive sit-in outside President Christina Paxson’s office.

The behavior of these radical movements should give voters in the referendum pause for thought. If, like me, you would consider it destructive for Yale alumni to be discouraged from donating, it is worth remembering what fossil free organizations are doing elsewhere.

Rather than joining in with the repetitive attacks on Harvard’s Faust and Brown’s Paxson, we should listen carefully to what they have to say. Neither of these presidents are conservative ideologues, yet both strongly articulated their belief that the only way to act in the best interests of the universities they serve was to reject divestment. They have access to confidential investment information that is not in the public domain; why should we doubt that they have made their conclusions for measured and sensible reasons?

Students for a Strong Endowment will never win awards for activism. We will never form part of a vast national movement. For this I make no apologies — it means that we are not seeking to make headlines, but instead are focusing our attention on acting in the best interests of our University.

Divestment is a risk we don’t need to take. Join me, and vote no to this bid to turn a thriving endowment into a permanent political protest for whichever activist group feels like its time is now. You’ll be doing Yale a great service.

Alex Fisher is a senior in Morse College and a member of Students for a Strong Endowment. Contact him at alexander.fisher@yale.edu.