Protests at the Yale-Harvard game over divestment from fossil fuels have reignited necessary conversations regarding endowment justice nationwide. While I commend Fossil Free Yale and Divest Harvard for their bold action and agree that it is both morally and financially imperative to abandon fossil fuel companies, I worry that ongoing dialogue and media coverage has overlooked a key facet of responsible investing: shareholder engagement.
As we wait for universities to commit to fossil fuel divestment, we should urge endowments to use their leverage as shareholders to hold companies to higher environmental and social standards. Given the Trump administration’s recent attacks on shareholder rights, students must fight for investor advocacy all the more so.
Under the current regulations of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), investors who own $2,000 of stock in a company for at least one year are able to file shareholder resolutions with that company. Think of a shareholder resolution as a proposal. Investors ask a company to disclose more information about certain elements of its business practice, and the rest of the company’s shareholders vote on whether they agree with the recommendation.
Shareholder engagement is crucial to helping socially responsible investors promote corporate accountability. After facing scrutiny from numerous institutional investors, Royal Dutch Shell announced in December 2018 that it would establish short-term carbon footprint targets. Similarly, Calvert Asset Management successfully pressured The Kroger Company to stop selling firearms in grocery stores in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. And in 2012, Trillium Asset Management convinced W. W. Grainger to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Owning shares in a company gives investors leverage to make change from within.
Thus, although we should continue to advocate for divestment and recognize that profiting from fossil fuel extraction is both morally wrong and financially negligent, we should also encourage the university to adopt a more proactive engagement strategy. As the News reported last year, completely divesting from fossil fuels could take decades. While Yale still owns shares in major coal, oil and natural gas corporations, it must use its seat at the table to demand that these firms set stricter emissions targets and align organizational goals with the Paris Climate Agreement.
Devoting more attention to engagement will also compel endowments and student groups to acknowledge that climate-conscious investing does not stop with fossil fuel divestment. Companies in every industry contribute to and are implicated in the climate crisis. Responsible investors must ensure that every firm in which they own stock is equipped to combat the risks that climate change presents. Achieving this goal requires thorough engagement; investors must speak with corporate leaders about greenhouse gas emissions and file shareholder resolutions requesting more comprehensive climate-related data from companies across sectors. If we as students do not demand this more robust approach to asset management, our calls for endowment justice will be, at best, half-baked.
In fact, students themselves can become investor advocates. Numerous student organizations on campus — the News, the Yale International Relations Association and the Yale Student Investment Group, just to name a few — control large sums of money that could be invested in companies for the purpose of engagement.
For the past four years, my peers in the Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund and I have done just that. By owning $2,000 of stock in ExxonMobil, we have joined professional investor advocates in demanding that Exxon fully disclose its direct and indirect lobbying expenditures. Our efforts, while just a tiny fraction of a larger campaign, culminated in July 2018, when Exxon decided to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative trade organization that funds climate change denial research.
Other student groups should take advantage of their sizable budgets to communicate with additional companies. Who better to speak to Twitter about an issue like fake news than members of an undergraduate tech club, the very people who will constitute the majority of Twitter’s user base and staff in the coming decades?
In order to engage effectively, young people must join the fight for shareholder rights. The SEC is currently proposing a rule change that would require investors to own $25,000 of stock for one year or $15,000 of stock for two years to file a shareholder proposal. This regulatory shift would limit the ability of students and other smaller investors to influence corporate behavior. More broadly, it would make the world of finance less transparent, less accessible and, as a result, less democratic.
If we at Yale and Harvard claim to care about endowment justice, we must demand policies that allow responsible investing to occur. No longer can students remain on the sidelines of the shareholder engagement movement. It’s time to storm the field.
GABRIEL MALEK is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and former Co-Chair of the Board of the Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund. In October 2019, he was named to the Socially Responsible Investing 30 Under 30 list by Business Wire. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .