University Calls Decision To Divest Its Few Oil Assets ‘Largely A Symbolic’ Gesture

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The University of Mary Washington announced Friday it aims to adjust the school’s already infinitesimally small oil investment policy “to limit discretionary fossil fuel investments” to a target of 2 percent or less.

The University’s Board of Visitors requested the Board of the UMW Foundation ratchet down its holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies to levels ranging between zero and four percent. The problem, however, is the school’s investments in the so-called Carbon 200 are already at or near single digits.

The decision comes on the heals of a report issued by the President’s Council on Sustainability (PCS) subcommittee, which showed that the Board of Visitors, the PCS said, could move forward in divesting some assets while still keeping its financial assets in the black.

The PCS went on to say that the most important issue for the school is the environment and the importance of leading on sustainability issues.

“The Board of Visitors takes seriously its fiduciary responsibility to protect the Foundation’s investment of UMW’s endowment,” Holly Cuellar, the head on the Board of Visitors, told reporters. “At the same time, it is important that this University continue to be a leader on the sustainability front and that we remain vigilant in seeking additional ways to demonstrate our commitment to the environment.”

The move, according to a press release announcing the decision, will not have any “immediate impact” on the fossil fuel holdings at UMW. An analysis provided by the UMW Foundation found that “the June 30, 2016 projected carbon exposure in the ‘Carbon 200’ companies is less than one percent.”

The PCS’ report fully acknowledged “that such a decision might be largely symbolic,” because of the university’s already meager amount of holdings in the Carbon 200. The PCS still believes divesting at this level would “nonetheless be of great worth.”

Fossil Free protesters at the school looked at UMW’s decision as a victory.

“The decision to divest from fossil fuels represents a rejection of the immoral activities of the industry,” said Drew Shannon, an advocate for divestment at the university. “Companies such as Dominion Power have an unethical hold over our politics in Virginia, exploit our natural resources, and damage our environment.”

Matt Dempsey, a spokesperson with Divestment Facts, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that UMW’s decision is mostly a symbolic “empty gesture.” It means almost nothing.

While activists and student protesters on campus might champion the school’s decision as a big win for the divestment movement, he said, the truth is it won’t affect the school’s fossil fuel assets at all.

“With no tangible impact on the university’s $41.1 million endowment, portfolio,” Dempsey said, the UMW Board of Visitors divestment is attention-grabbing but doesn’t really offer anything “when it comes down to tangible change of any real consequence.”

UMW’s signaling on the divestment issue comes on the heels of other recent protests on college campuses, some of which have become increasingly belligerent as schools continue to poo-poo the message.

Protests at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus, for instance, have resulted in the arrest of 34 members of Fossil Free UMass, an environmental group dead-set on full divestment.

Fossil Free UMass says it will continue occupying the Whitmore Administration Building until the university promises to divest holdings from the top fossil fuel companies.

Green protesters at Yale University on April 12 praised the school’s supposed move to divest as a significant portion of its oil assets.

“It’s important to recognize this as a victory, and it is important that we keep fighting for what we believe in and don’t rest until we start to see concrete change at Yale,Arabelle Schoenberg, an activist with Fossil Free Yale, told reporters.

Still, managers of Yale University’s $25.6 billion endowment divested less than $10 million in investments in fossil-fuel companies, according to David Swensen, the fund’s chief manager.

One of the fund’s external managers left a publicly traded oil and coal producing company, according to a letter posted on the school’s website. Another manager sold interests on Yale’s behalf in two publicly traded oil sands producers, Swensen wrote.

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