Particularly with the momentum surrounding Bill McKibben’s 350.org, divestment campaigns have captured fire, the idea being that colleges are community leaders that can both send a message and disempower companies by withdrawing their investments from them.
I’m sure no one will take issue if I use Harvard as an example of a university that also serves as a community leader. In a recent vote that around half their undergraduate student body participated in, 72% supported the demand that Harvard, who holds the largest endowment in the country at $31 billion, divest from fossil fuel companies.
Despite what seems to be a strong majority of students supporting this measure, a Harvard spokesperson responded to the vote saying, “Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels.” That’s right: A community leader on the order of Harvard University, despite student demand, refuses to even consider divestment.
Let’s bring things back home to our very own University of Minnesota, whose endowment is less than a tenth of Harvard’s. UMN invests in around 100 different funds, many of which invest in other funds and hundreds of companies and many of which are entirely private. The answer to “where does all the money go?” is inherently opaque and nigh on incomprehensible, and with many private higher education institutions, you’ll often be denied access to their portfolio altogether.
Many successful student campaigns are driven by knowledge of systems and students doing the legwork in providing alternatives. In divestment, these are both impossibilities. A battle that could precede divestment may involve curing the epidemic of lack of access to behind the scenes workings of higher education institutions. Either way, good luck. You’ll need it.
Joey Daniewicz, MPIRG Board of Directors