By Caroline Boschetto, deputy news editor
Northeastern University’s checkbook is a shade greener as of July 11, when the school announced that it will be directing $25 million of its endowment funds toward sustainable investments over the next five years.
Michael Armini, senior vice president of external affairs at Northeastern University (NU), wrote in an email to The News on July 19 that the university’s senior leadership came to this decision after nearly two years of talks with students and endowment management experts. The plan was approved by the university’s Board of Trustees, Armini said.
“We already do a great deal in terms of education, research and how we operate our campuses, but this additional step sends an important message,” he wrote.
According to a 2016 report by the Fossil Fuel Divestment working group of NU’s Social Impact Council (SIC), the planet is experiencing rapid increases in temperature and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, partially resulting from the actions of the fossil fuel industry.
“2015 was the warmest year on record, a full 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial level,” the report said. “Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are now over 400 parts per million, a concentration not seen for millions of years.”
The SIC report also detailed the adverse effects resulting from climate change.
“Destructive and once-anomalous weather events are increasingly common; conflicts are breaking out over scarce resources; low-lying islands are disappearing into the oceans,” the SIC report read.
Austin Williams, a rising senior environmental studies and political science double major, said that he believes the sustainable investment pledge was a direct result of the activity of student activist group DivestNU. DivestNU was formed in spring of 2013 as a campaign for the university to withdraw all direct and indirect endowment investments in the fossil fuel industry, according to the SIC report.
Williams said that DivestNU views the university’s pledge announcement as both a step forward and backward regarding the university’s environmental consciousness.
“While we do believe that active reinvestment and socially responsible investment are crucial, we do not believe that it is an either/or question between such reinvestments and between divestment from socially irresponsible industries,” Williams said.
Although NU has no direct investments in fossil fuel companies, Williams said that DivestNU’s goal is to persuade the university to divest from commingled investments, which direct funds toward a variety of investments that contribute to the fossil fuel industry as well.
Williams said that he took issue with a segment of the announcement that said the university is choosing to address climate change through investment as opposed to divestment because Northeastern is “an institution that actively engages with the world, not one that retreats from global challenges.”
According to Williams, this characterization of divestment is misleading.
“To somehow frame a decision to invest in clean energy initiatives and to also remove investments from the fossil fuel industry as mutually incompatible – it’s really nonsensical,” Williams said. “It shows that many universities have a deep willingness to frame the issue in nonsensical terms so as to prevent someone from clearly assessing the situation.”
Williams said he is hopeful that NU will continue improving its environmental record.
“Northeastern touts itself as a self-described sustainability leader in higher education,” he said. “I believe that Northeastern certainly has done some work to merit that distinction, but there still is a lot left to do.”
In his email, Armini wrote that the administration is aware that some students, particularly members of DivestNU, disagree with the university’s investment policies.
“While we realize some students are unhappy with anything short of full divestment, we admire their passion and commitment to this issue,” Armini said.
Dr. Matthias Ruth, an NU professor in the school of public policy and urban affairs, as well as in the department of civil and environmental engineering, said he is excited about NU’s sustainable investment pledge.
“I think [the investment plan] is a very smart approach and hopefully will lift us out of this confrontational mode in which the divest movement has been stuck for a while,” Ruth said. “Maybe with this we’ll gain new ground and get people… aligned behind some of the climate action goals.”
Ruth said he is impressed with the motivation of Northeastern’s students, faculty and administration on the topic of climate action.
“On many fronts I think we are doing the right thing,” Ruth said. “This is a sign that we’ve already identified an area where we could do more, and now we will.”
Ruth also said that, while he is sympathetic to DivestNU’s mission, he also believes that full divestment is easier in theory than in practice.
“Finding funds that have no [fossil fuels] in them is tricky,” Ruth said. “At the end of the day, almost all households and firms, to some extent, use fossil fuels, so it becomes sort of an arbitrary decision of where to draw the boundary once you’re past that first set of culprits.”
Ruth also said that he believes that universities have an opportunity and responsibility to be catalysts for social change by setting positive examples.
“This is where, in essence, the future leaders come from,” he said. “If we don’t embed people in the right kind of environment and teach them a new and creative positive way of thinking about some of these challenges… I don’t know who would.”
Photo by Cassidy DeStefano