At Yale, the campaign for the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry began with an 83-page report.
During the 2012–13 academic year, the student group Fossil Free Yale began a dialogue with Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR). Over the next 18 months, these students said they continued to play by the rules while advocating for Yale to divest. They met repeatedly with members of the administration and submitted detailed policy proposals to the University’s leaders. And despite the occasional demonstration in front of Woodbridge Hall, students interviewed said they considered the push for divestment to be far from radical.
But that strategy proved unsuccessful when the Yale Corporation, which has the final say on investment policy, voted against divestment last month. Now, Fossil Fuel Yale members are uncertain about how to move forward.
Students interviewed said three possible paths have emerged: stop advocating for divestment, continue with efforts similar to those they have tried in the past or become more radical.
While leaders of Fossil Free Yale said they have not made a final decision on strategy, they emphasized that the first path is not an option.
Mitch Barrows ’16, project manager for Fossil Free Yale, said the organization will work to build student support for divestment on campus and engage with alumni. Barrows said that Fossil Free Yale will lead a “combination of small and large escalation tactics” throughout the fall, but declined to elaborate further.
Barrows added that he believes the organization will become more aggressive, but other members of Fossil Free Yale disagreed.
“I’m not sure whether it’s a question of being more moderate or more aggressive,” Patrick Reed ’16 said. “It’s just being louder.”
Matthew Countryman ’86, who played a leading role in the campus push to divest the University’s assets from South African companies in the 1980s during apartheid, said he and his peers also tried to use Yale’s own processes to effect change. But ultimately, he said more forceful action was deemed necessary.
“We didn’t want to use protest strategies until we demonstrated that we had tried to use the university’s procedures,” Countryman said.
After considering whether to occupy University buildings, Countryman said students decided to set up shantytowns on Beinecke Plaza. Still, the South Africa divestment campaign did not achieve its goal until the early 1990s, when Yale divested from 17 companies.
He added that coordinated divestment campaigns at many universities are more likely to be successful than isolated ones.
“A student campaign that’s linked to campaigns at other universities and other types of constituencies can force the institution to continue to grapple with the issue for a long time,” Countryman said.
Support from within the board of trustees can also prove crucial, according to students at Stanford University, which recently announced that it would divest its assets from coal companies.
The catalyst for Stanford’s divestment came from a single board member, Thomas Steyer ’79, according to Fossil Free Stanford member Krishna Dasaratha.
“I know that Steyer was a big advocate for divestment in the board discussions, and, by all accounts that was a major factor,” he said. “There were a number of other important faculty, alumni and students who had a big impact, but it was definitely a big help to have somebody so supportive on the inside.”
Steyer could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
Still, Dasaratha recommended that Fossil Free Yale take more aggressive steps to combat administrative obstinacy. He said that it is important to employ new tactics and possibly “escalate the campaign” when faced with rejection.
While Fossil Free Yale contemplates its next move, the administration and the Yale Corporation w ’82, who chairs the CCIR, said in a statement responding a question on whether he expected the CCIR to reconsider the issue of divestment.
Keny-Guyer also rejected a central tenet of Fossil Free Yale’s campaign: that divestment is imperative not because it would effect great change, but because it would demonstrate symbolic leadership on Yale’s part in the fight against climate change.
When asked whether Yale’s primary responsibility is to act as a national leader or to reduce its own emissions, Keny-Guyer said that the University’s “primary responsibility is to its core mission of research, scholarship and education.”
He noted, however, that the University is an “international leader among universities in its aggressive sustainability efforts.”
“We lead by example,” Keny-Guyer said.
Outside experts expressed different views on whether the University will eventually divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist whose 2012 speaking tour helped spark many college divestment movements, said that he expects the University will ultimately reverse last month’s CCIR decision.
“It took Yale many years to divest from apartheid South Africa,” McKibben said. “I think it will happen quicker with fossil [fuels], because global warming is a timed test, and because Yale’s School of Forestry and the Environment is such a global force that their current investment policy is a contradiction and a sad joke.”
Will Lana, a partner at Trillium Asset Management — a firm that takes environmental, social and governance factors into account in the investing process — offered a similar view, albeit for different reasons. According to Lana, universities will eventually begin moving away from fossil fuel investments as green energy becomes more profitable.
Still, other experts said universities are unlikely to divest from the fossil fuel industry any time soon.
“I’d be surprised if you’d see many universities doing [divestment],” said Stanford economist Charles Kolstad. “They want as much return on their endowment as possible.”
With the exception of Stanford, which chose to divest from coal, none of Yale’s peer schools have shifted their assets away from the fossil fuel industry. Harvard announced that it would not divest its assets from fossil fuel companies in October 2013.