Marisa Peryer

More than a week after the halftime protest at Yale-Harvard game drew national attention, activists and the University remain at odds — with the students unable to confirm claims about specific holdings in the endowment and Yale unwilling to disclose its investments.

In interviews, the protestors said they are advocating for divestment from fossil fuel industries and Puerto Rican debt in general. They broadly consider investing in fossil fuel industries and Puerto Rican debt “morally reprehensible,” the student activists said. 

Nora Heaphy ’21 — who helped organize the Nov. 23 protest — said most members of the University lack intimate knowledge of Yale’s holdings and explained that organizers’ activism does not depend on whether or not the University is currently investing in specific industries. Instead, she said, her team is pushing for Yale to put out a public statement morally condemning — and naming — these holdings and pledging not to invest in them “now or in the future.”

The Yale Investment Office typically does not comment on where it allocates its roughly $30 billion endowment. In an email to the News, University President Peter Salovey added that while Yale does not favor divestment, it requests outside endowment managers to avoid companies that do not consider the social and economic costs of climate change and fail to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yale has the will and the capacity to make a profound difference in the fight for our planet’s future, Salovey said.

Meanwhile, Ivy League universities jointly issued a statement calling it regrettable that the orchestrated protest came during a celebrated tradition and a collegiate career-defining contest for student athletes. 

According to Alex Cohen ’21, who participated in the divestment protest, students have been combing through public forms from the Internal Revenue Services and U.S. Security Exchange Commission to verify whether the University makes ethically questionable investments. The student activists do not have access to Yale’s current holdings. The University’s quarterly 13F filings to the SEC is filed by institutional investment managers that oversee assets of over $100 million. Yale, which invests the majority of its endowment through external investment managers, only discloses to the SEC the investments made directly by staff in the Investments Office.

The most recent financial documents cited by activists that detail parts of Yale’s endowment are current as of Sept. 30. Updated information past that point is not publicly available. 

Endowment expert Charles Skorina said the confusion surrounding how divestment works can prevent activists from fully understanding what they are fighting for.

“I see nothing wrong with students running onto the football field at halftime and saying, ‘Hey, this is an issue that we’re concerned about,’” he said. “The problem is, divest from what?”

Skorina added that divesting from fossil fuels may be a slippery slope. For example, having a stake in rail or trucking companies could qualify as investing in fossil fuels since some of these businesses transport such materials, Skorina explained.

“The whole issue of divesting is tricky,” he said. “It’s challenging because one person’s issue might not be another person’s issue, and once you’ve weaponized divesting, where do you stop?”

The Yale Endowment Justice Coalition, an activist group that helped orchestrate the Nov. 23 protest, claims on its website that the University’s investments in fossil fuels sum up to at least $678 million. The website does not provide any evidence for this statement, and Cohen said the group has not updated the website this semester.

While students have cited several IRS and SEC forms that detail some of the University’s investments, most recently from September 2019, any changes that the University may have made to its holdings in the past few months will not be available until more current forms are released.

The website, and slides from a Feb. 3 teach-in, also claim that Yale has holdings in private prisons. But in a March 2018 op-ed, Chief Investment Officer David Swensen wrote that this allegation is “completely untrue.” Many of the activists’ claims about fossil fuel and Puerto Rican debt holdings were based on “false and misleading stories” generated by Local 33, the Yale graduate student union, Swensen said.

A few years prior, the University drew criticism from activists when Seth Klarman — the billionaire manager of the Baupost Group, which owns around $911 million in Puerto Rico bonds — wrote a letter to the company’s investors, including Yale, that allowing Puerto Rico to default on its debt would be “impractical.” Yale’s Form 990 for tax year 2015 shows that, as of June 30, 2016, the University had $740 million, or about 3 percent of its endowment, invested in YB Institutional Limited, a fund operated by the Baupost Group.

But there is no evidence that the University currently invests in companies with holdings of Puerto Rican debt.

Cohen said the activists for divestment are hosting a teach-in on Thursday to discuss what he called Yale’s “extremely opaque” financial records. According to an outline of the teach-in obtained from Cohen, the coalition alleges that “no fossil fuel companies [are] directly owned by Yale at this time, but that could change at any moment,” referring to direct holdings in 13F forms.

But Cohen said direct ownership is a small portion of the Yale endowment, and that much of it is held by fund managers, who may hold companies that deal with fossil fuels or Puerto Rican debt. According to research Cohen shared with the News, his team alleges they know of nearly $500 million in fossil fuel investments and hundreds of millions in Puerto Rican debt. There is no evidence that Yale currently holds these investments. Specifically, the coalition alleges $352 million are managed by JVL Advisors, an oil and gas investment manager, according to documents Cohen shared with the News. But this number comes from an IRS form dating mid-2018, and Yale may have pulled its money since then. 

Heaphy, another participant in the November protest, said specific investments Yale may have is “not central to the question of whether or not they should divest.” Rather, the question is “based on the moral implications of investing in the growth of an industry [whose] core business model is destroying the planet, the massive statement Yale would make by divesting, etc,” Heaphy wrote.

While the debate surrounding the ethics of Yale’s investments remains at an impasse, a few universities have taken drastic steps to divest from controversial causes. This September, University of California announced that its $13.4-billion endowment would be “fossil-free” by the end of that month. According to a Los Angeles Times op-ed penned by the university’s investors, University of California sold off roughly $150 million in fossil fuel assets from the endowment.

But in the op-ed, the investors specified that their decision was not prompted by long-standing student and faculty demands for divestment. Instead, the school let go of its holdings in fossil fuel companies because “they posed a long-term risk to generating strong returns for UC’s diversified portfolios,” the op-ed stated.

Heaphy called the University of California’s announcement a significant step forward and said that if Yale similarly divested without crediting the student protestors, the activists would “put a lot of very vocal and visible pressure on Yale to own up to the fact that it was actually morally reprehensible.”

“Yale should be very concerned. We will continue to organize until they do divest and a lot of the victory has already happened,” she said. “Everyone is aware of this. Everyone is talking about it, [and] the vast majority of people find it shameful and shocking. This is not going to go away.”

In an interview with the News, Skorina, an endowment expert, said contractual and legal hurdles can impede divestment. Donors sometimes give universities stocks, and their contracts often limit the university’s ability to alter that investment, Skorina explained. In other cases, private equity contracts often last seven to 10 years, and it could take an institution up to a decade to divest. According to the Yale Investments Office, private equity — along with absolute return and real assets — made up 77 percent of the University’s endowment by 2019.

“And all of a sudden, you’ve basically said half or more of the endowment we have to pull out of companies,” Skorina said. “You can’t do that. Give it a try. The stock market crashes.”

Skorina added that university investment offices looking to divest from particular companies may typically wait for the stock price to rise before pulling their funds.

According a University filing from Feb. 8, the University decreased its holdings in the energy company Antero Resource Corporation from $77,698,000 to $357,000 in the last quarter of 2018. University activists called the divestment the result of student action at a Dec. 7 teach-in. But the precise timing –– and motivation behind the divestment ––  remain unclear. According to Marketwatch, Antero’s stock price tumbled during that period.

Currently, the University relies on the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility and the Yale Corporation’s Committee on Investor Responsibility to ensure that its investment methods are ethical. After the two groups discuss the implications of the University’s investments, the CCIR makes recommendations to the full Corporation.

According to a report by the ACIR, while climate change is an urgent issue, divesting is not the appropriate countermeasure. Life’s basic necessities, the report states, depend on petroleum-based products and services — and without demand, fossil fuel suppliers would not have a market for those products and services. According to the statement, divestment is “not the right means” of addressing the climate crisis and is not effective.

“Yale will have its greatest impact in meeting the climate challenge through its core mission: research, scholarship and education conducted by its faculty and students,” the report states.

According to ACIR chair and law professor Jonathan Macey, the ACIR will discuss the halftime protest at its next meeting in December. While Macey told the News that student protests help the ACIR understand student perspective on certain policy issues, such protests are not the only factor in the committee’s decision-making process.

“Speaking for myself, I am somewhat concerned about the interruption and disruption of classes, games and other official university events,” Macey told the News in an email. “I do not think that such interruptions are helpful to ongoing discussions and considerations of the various issues we are facing. There appears to be a secular uptick in the incidence of such disruptions, and if the trend continues, it could detract from the ability of the university to carry out its mission.”

Puerto Rican debt has also been a subject of discussion for the ACIR. According to a 2018 ACIR statement, Puerto Rico is relieved from paying portions of its debt to creditors during the ongoing recovery process. The statement concluded that divestment from Puerto Rican debt is not warranted.

In the statement, Macey said no allegations of “unethical debt collection efforts or practices” have been made. Investment managers have fiduciary duties to their investors that likely preclude them from unilaterally forgiving Puerto Rico’s payment obligations, the committee chair said.

Formed to address “social responsibility issues” in the early 1970s, the ACIR helped Yale divest from South African companies that supported apartheid following massive student demonstrations. But now, Heaphy argued that the ACIR has “no power” and can only make recommendations.

Still, Salovey said the University benefits from hearing community input. In an email to the News, he said Yale follows a policy supporting shareholder resolutions “calling for company disclosures that address climate change issues.

The ACIR will hold a public forum on Dec. 9 at the Yale Law School for participants to voice their opinions about Yale’s investments.

 

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu

Clarification, Dec. 10: This story has been updated to more accurately depict protestors’ claims. The News added an example of a holding from a 2018 IRS form that the members of the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition consider unethical.