Daniel Zhao

As the climate crisis intensifies, the issue of divestment has powered up throughout the 2019-20 academic year, with a series of headline-grabbing protests and the first-ever Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate meeting devoted to the University’s investment practices.

The University has drawn scrutiny from activists, including the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition, for its refusal to publicly divest from the fossil fuel industry. Though the University typically does not disclose where it invests its roughly $30 billion endowment, activists are pushing for Yale to release a statement definitively condemning investments in fossil fuels and pledging not to invest in those resources now or in the future. But Chief Investment Officer David Swensen GRD ’80 has rebuffed activists, saying that some common divestment arguments may be based on false or misleading information and that Yale can best mitigate the climate crisis by facilitating research and scholarship.

“Yale’s investment policy regarding climate change reduces portfolio risk and supports our fiduciary responsibility — to provide substantial, stable financial support for current and future scholars through the prudent management of Yale’s endowment,” Swensen wrote in a Feb. 21 post on the Yale Investments Office’s website. “This support enables Yale to pursue its mission and to contribute to climate change solutions through its greatest areas of strength: research, scholarship and education.”

The divestment issue caught the attention of national news when students and alumni from Yale and Harvard University stormed the 50-yard line at the annual football game between the rival universities. 

As police flooded the field, demonstrators demanded that the institutions divest from fossil fuels, private prisons and Puerto Rican debt.

“Students are tired of Harvard and Yale profiting off of climate destruction and neocolonial investments in Puerto Rico’s debt,” states a late November press release from Divest Harvard emailed by the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition. “It’s time for more than lip service and greenwashing from academic leaders. Harvard and Yale must address the climate emergency at the scale and with the urgency it demands.”

The protesters delayed the start of the second half of the Nov. 23 football game. Though most dispersed after about 30 minutes on the field, 42 refused to cede their ground and were issued misdemeanor summons for disorderly conduct.

“We’re showing them that games like these, like life at Yale, cannot go on as usual until Yale divests, and we’re going to continue doing this,” Sophie Lieberman ’21 said during the protest.

University spokesperson Karen Peart affirmed Yale’s commitment to free expression, but added that it does not allow for the disruption of University events. In a statement to the News, Peart wrote that Yale stands with the Ivy League in stating that it is regrettable the protest interfered with a “collegiate career-defining contest” for many of the players. A week after the game, Sam Tuckerman ’20, the kicker for Yale’s football team, wrote an opinion piece in the News criticizing the protesters’ decision to disrupt the game instead of another event. Though Yale came back from a 17-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to beat Harvard 50-43 in double overtime, Tuckerman wrote that the protesters almost altered the game’s outcome.

Though initially only around 100 people had planned to protest, a surge of others ultimately joined them. The protest drew national attention, prompting praise from prominent politicians and celebrities — including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and George Takei — as well as condemnation from people alleging the protesters had interfered with an important career-building opportunity for the football players.

The protest came on the heels of another demonstration advocating for the same changes. Midday on Sept. 26, hundreds of Yale students marched out of their classes to protest the University’s ties to the fossil fuel industry and to Puerto Rican debt. The cohort congregated on Cross Campus before heading towards Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, where administrators including Yale College Dean Marvin Chun watched the protest.

Protesters confronted Chun, who told the News that he could not speak on the walkout’s specific demands, but was “more than happy” to talk to students about their concerns.

A coalition of campus environmentalist groups organized the walkout, during which several spoke, chanted and sang. Peter Steinmann ’22 spoke to the crowd, claiming that the University profits off “climate destruction and the continued exploitation of Puerto Rico,” and demanding that Yale “disclose and divest” any holdings in fossil fuel companies.

“Disclose all investments in Puerto Rican debt, instruct fund managers with investments in Puerto Rican debt to cancel that debt,” Steinmann said.

After the demonstrations, the FAS Senate broke precedent and allowed student climate activists to appear before it on Feb. 21. At the meeting in Connecticut Hall, student activists, Swensen and experts on ethical investing offered rationale for and against divestment.

Meeting attendees diverged on whether Yale should divest from the fossil fuel industry as a whole, but reached a consensus that the University should not invest in companies that spread false information about climate change. According to some of those present at the meeting, many FAS senators supported revisiting the Investments Office’s manual for ethical investing, written in 1972.

But the term divestment contains some ambiguity. Endowment expert Charles Skorina told the News that some companies based on industries such as transportation may be indirectly involved in the fossil fuel industry, leading to questions over whether divesting from them aligns with the protesters’ demands.  

Even with clear aims, the action of divesting also presents contractual and legal hurdles. Some of Yale’s endowment is tied up in private equity contracts that can last for up to a decade. Additionally, donors may have gifted Yale stocks that the University is contractually obliged not to alter. 

“The whole issue of divesting is tricky,” Skorina 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 divestment issue has gained such ground that Maggie Thomas FES ’15 is vying for a seat on the Yale Corporation with a platform championing environmental causes. Thomas, the former climate policy adviser for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, plans to run for a spot as one of the Corporation’s six alumni fellows.

“I really feel like the University is at an inflection point,” Thomas said. “Yale has this opportunity to be a leader in a global transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy, and whether it be world-class education and research or rapidly building a zero-emissions campus or implementing a first-of-its-kind ethical investment strategy, I feel very strongly that Yale can continue to show how a world-class university can lead in our fight against climate change.”

Numerous universities have pledged to divest from individual sectors or the fossil fuel industry as a whole. Responding to student activism around the issue, Stanford University pledged to divest from coal companies in 2014. The University of California announced in September 2019 that its endowment would be “fossil-free” by the end of that month. The university’s investors wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that they made the decision for financial reasons because the fossil fuel assets seemed unlikely to generate strong returns in the future.

The University’s investing is informed by the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility  — which is formed of students, faculty, staff and alumni — and the Yale Corporation’s Committee on Investor Responsibility, which consists of Corporation members.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu