By Elise Harmon, managing editor
Northeastern University announced on Monday its plans to invest in environmentally sustainable practices rather than to divest from fossil fuel companies. The university said it will contribute $25 million of its $700 million endowment to investments in “clean energy, renewables, green building, and sustainable water and agriculture.”
This move comes in the wake of years of activism at Northeastern and throughout the country calling for universities to divest from fossil fuel industries. In the 2014 Northeastern Student Government Association (SGA) election, 75 percent of respondents voted in favor of a referendum calling for an end to the school’s investments in fossil fuel companies. In response, President Aoun announced the formation of a Social Impact Council composed of student, faculty and staff members to address this and other social issues faced by the university.
The council, which reports and makes recommendations to the board of trustees, examined the issue and recommended divestment in a March 28 report.
“Divestment is a tactic for expediting the transition to clean energy,” the detailed report said. “It has been embraced by universities, municipalities, companies, faith groups and other institutions collectively managing over $3.4 trillion.”
Thomas Nedell, Northeastern’s treasurer and senior vice president for finance, posed investment in green energy as an alternative to divestment from fossil fuels.
“We have deliberately chosen to invest, not divest,” he said. “This approach is consistent with Northeastern’s character as an institution that actively engages with the world, not one that retreats from global challenges.”
Nedell and Northeastern frame investment and divestment as two contrasting options, failing to acknowledge that the two actions aren’t exclusive to each other. While investing in green energy is a climate-friendly move – although it’s surprising that Northeastern hadn’t already invested in such initiatives – failing to make divestment a priority is an insult to a student body that overwhelmingly voted in favor of it.
For over two years, the university has been reluctant to acknowledge the referendum and the coalition of over 20 student groups, DivestNU, that formed as a result. After years of endless meetings, little victories and non-answers, Northeastern has finally acted to do something to support the fight against climate change, but still refuses to divest.
DivestNU responded to the Monday announcement with a critical statement pointing out the hypocrisy of investing rather than divesting.
“The administration chose not to consult with students before making this decision, and rejected multiple appeals to open a dialogue between the Board of Trustees and Northeastern students regarding this issue,” the statement said. “We have been bypassed and forced to bear witness as our administration once again puts profit over people.”
The school is framing the decision as “an innovative additional step” from a university that is “a sustainability leader.” Northeastern, however, is behind numerous educational institutions who have divested, including Georgetown University, Yale University and the University of Massachusetts as well as cities such as Paris and San Francisco.
Arguments that divestment isn’t effective do have merit – refusing to invest in companies that produce fossil fuels is a largely symbolic act. Divesting from fossil fuels doesn’t have any sort of impact on oil or coal companies themselves. These corporations’ profits come from the sale of their products, not from the sale of stock. Some of the worst polluters – such as Koch Industries – don’t even sell stock. Just because divesting doesn’t have an economic impact does not mean that the act doesn’t have a social value, however.
Northeastern also argues that it doesn’t have any direct investments in fossil fuels – that its investments in energy companies are tied up in commingled investment funds. This argument seems to be the university’s attempt to minimize its investments and to suggest that divestment would be difficult. It’s hard to believe, however, that Northeastern is the first institution who would have to deal with divesting from commingled funds.
By divesting, Northeastern University would effectively distance itself from the industry largely responsible for climate change – a move that seems like it should be a no-brainer to a self-described leader in sustainability and an institution that prides itself on its new eco-friendly buildings and pledge to reduce carbon-emission levels. Northeastern has been slow in the past to respond to student activism and this investment, while a significant step in the right direction, showcases exactly how little the administration is willing to work with students and respond to their desires.
Northeastern needs to take the views of its students more seriously. If even divestment – one of the most popular activist demands – is met with resistance, how can students feel that the university cares about them as anything other than sources of tuition and future donations?
A previous version of this article stated that Monday’s announcement failed to mention that the SIC recommended divestment. In fact, the announcement stated that the SIC urged the university to fully divest its endowment holdings from all “companies engaged in fossil fuel production.” We regret the error.