SWARTHMORE, Pa. — A group of Swarthmore College students is asking the school administration to take a seemingly simple step to combat pollution and climate change: sell off the endowment’s holdings in large fossil fuel companies. For months, they have been getting a simple answer: no.
As they consider how to ratchet up their campaign, the students suddenly find themselves at the vanguard of a national movement.
In recent weeks, college students on dozens of campuses have demanded that university endowment funds rid themselves of coal, oil and gas stocks. The students see it as a tactic that could force climate change, barely discussed in the presidential campaign, back onto the national political agenda.
“We’ve reached this point of intense urgency that we need to act on climate change now, but the situation is bleaker than it’s ever been from a political perspective,” said William Lawrence, a Swarthmore senior from East Lansing, Mich.
Students who have signed on see it as a conscious imitation of the successful effort in the 1980s to pressure colleges and other institutions to divest themselves of the stocks of companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.
A small institution in Maine, Unity College, has already voted to get out of fossil fuels. Another, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, has adopted a broad investment policy that is ridding its portfolio of fossil fuel stocks.
“In the near future, the political tide will turn and the public will demand action on climate change,” Stephen Mulkey, the Unity College president, wrote in a letter to other college administrators. “Our students are already demanding action, and we must not ignore them.”
But at colleges with large endowments, many administrators are viewing the demand skeptically, saying it would undermine their goal of maximum returns in support of education. Fossil fuel companies represent a significant portion of the stock market, comprising nearly 10 percent of the value of the Russell 3000, a broad index of 3,000 American companies.
No school with an endowment exceeding $1 billion has agreed to divest itself of fossil fuel stocks. At Harvard, which holds the largest endowment in the country at $31 billion, the student body recently voted to ask the school to do so. With roughly half the undergraduates voting, 72 percent of them supported the demand.
“We always appreciate hearing from students about their viewpoints, but Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels,” Kevin Galvin, a university spokesman, said by e-mail.
Several organizations have been working on some version of a divestment campaign, initially focusing on coal, for more than a year. But the recent escalation has largely been the handiwork of a grass-roots organization, 350.org, that focuses on climate change, and its leader, Bill McKibben, a writer turned advocate. The group’s name is a reference to what some scientists see as a maximum safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. The level is now about 390, an increase of 41 percent since before the Industrial Revolution.
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