The Divestment Conundrum

Zoe Kovacs, Editor in Chief and Ana Koerner, Managing Editor

 

The Facebook notification appeared after months of radio silence. “Stand with Fossil Free Pitt at the Board of Trustees Meeting,” it read. It was the evening of Thursday February 23, and the event was marked for Friday morning at 9 a.m. Activism works whip-fast, and necessarily so–developments come quickly and often unannounced, and organizers must be ready to react.

Fossil Free Pitt is comprised of student activists who have been working since 2014 to convince Pitt administration to divest from fossil fuels, thereby ceasing economic contribution to environmentally damaging energy practices. That Thursday, leaders of the Coalition learned that, unexpectedly, administrators at Pitt had been discussing divestment. Conveniently, there would be a Board of Trustees meeting the following day. Though the Board would not be formally addressing divestment that day, it would be the perfect setting for the Coalition to showcase widespread support for their movement.

In spite of the short notice, the Student Office of Sustainability began filling promptly at nine o’clock, populated by faces both familiar and new to the Coalition. Here, students were to prepare for the meeting, discussing goals and behavior, and receive matching orange “Divest Pitt” t-shirts. A powerful symbol of support and of students’ ability to organize, visible presence at the meeting would hopefully put pressure on the Board and remind them that the Coalition has not given up or disappeared.

As the body in control of determining virtually every aspect of University life, the Board of Trustees is solely responsible for decisions concerning University investments. While all decisions are made behind closed doors, they are divulged at public meetings like this one.

This demonstration was the Coalition’s first outreach effort since mid-December. Around the time of finals, they sent an email containing updates of their progress. In it, they explained that, after months of anticipating a response from the Board regarding whether they would begin the process of considering divestment, they found that conversations concerning Divestment had stopped completely.

In January, The Fourth Wave sat down with members of Fossil Free Pitt to learn some background on the campaign and find out where things were heading. We expected a story of concerted student effort and slow-moving bureaucracy–instead, we peeked into the black hole of maddeningly opaque university policies, alien financial jargon, and inaccessible administration members. We learned of our Board members’ links to Pennsylvania government, their doubtful methods of avoiding or reporting conflicts of interest, and of just how little even Board members themselves seem to know (or, are willing to discuss) about the decision-making process. We left the room so mind-boggled we couldn’t even ask further questions–and after all that, we had barely scratched the surface.


 

So how did we get here?

The Fossil Free Pitt Divestment Coalition began in the fall of 2014 on the wave of the People’s Climate March in New York City. Free the Planet, an environmentalist student organization at Pitt, USAS Local #31 (United Students Against Sweatshops, known in 2014 as AIDPitt), and other campus activists began building a coalition of student organizations. Today, thirty-nine student organizations have backed the divestment campaign. The Coalition’s message is far reaching, gaining support from groups ranging from Campus Women’s Organization and Black Action Society to special interest clubs like Origami Club. Evidently, the cause has unified a wide variety of members of the Pitt community, as growing numbers are beginning to hold their institution accountable for its role in the depletion of the earth’s resources and contribution to global climate change.

The Coalition’s first step on the road to divestment was beginning a conversation with the administration. In 2014, students met with Dr. Kathy Humphrey, then the Dean of Students, who helped connect the group with the appropriate administrators. Then they had to build their case. Here is where things become complicated.

There are many well-established and compelling reasons for divestment, but proving that to the Board–both in social, and especially in economic terms–is an incredibly complicated task. “We had to do a lot of research into endowments and the financial reasons for and against divesting from fossil fuels, and a lot of what investing means,” explained Claire Matway, who has been involved with the campaign since its inception. This involves plenty of specific financial terminology and concepts that are certainly foreign to the layman’s ear.

Eventually, the group drew up a petition that has since accumulated 3,600 signatures from students, alumnae, and staff, and presented it to Dean Bonner in order to demonstrate widespread support for divestment. They then contacted Amy Marsh, the Chief Financial Officer at Pitt, in order to find the exact figures of how much the University invests in fossil fuels. Due to loopholes in the Right to Know Act, however, the University is under no obligation to provide this information, and it is largely hidden from the public. Consequently, the Coalition had to fundraise several hundreds of dollars to purchase the list identifying all companies the University invests in.

The Carbon Underground 200 list outlines the 200 largest fossil fuel companies based on their reserves’ potential to release carbon into the atmosphere. From this, they learned that the University of Pittsburgh has approximately $26 million directly invested in these companies, said Alex Stash, a junior with the campaign. That figure did not, however, include investments that are indirectly linked to fossil fuels. In other words, it is likely that millions of dollars are missing from that figure.

In February of 2016, with the help of Dean Bonner, the Coalition was successful in securing a meeting with the Student Affairs Committee, a subsection of the Board of Trustees. The times allotted to student presenters was brutally short. “Four minutes. Two slides. One minute for questions,” said Matway. Two students, Sage Lincoln and Sarah Grguras, represented the Coalition. The meeting was not for discussion, described Stash, just a brief opportunity to pitch their argument. No discussion would occur until that summer.

Student Affairs brought the issue to the whole Executive Board, and the decision was swift: The board decided social responsibility was not a compelling argument to divest from fossil fuels. The only precedent for divestment on the basis of social responsibility, said the Coalition, is when student pressure provoked the University to withdraw their holdings in South African companies in order to protest racial segregation during apartheid.

Not all hope was lost, however. “They decided that the Investment Committee should make a decision on whether or not they want to look into the economic argument,” said Stash.

If the Committee saw compelling economic reasons, as the Coalition hoped they would, they would then form an ad-hoc committee, one formed to address a specific issue, to discuss divestment. They decided it was not.

“I don’t even know if they actually made any decision on it,” Stash said. “I think it was just not talked about anymore.”

The Coalition was never directly informed of any decision by the Board. Instead, said Stash, they found out by chance through a meeting meant to inform them about the Board’s decision-making process. Cindy Moore, a Board employee, mentioned that divestment was no longer being discussed, to the Coalition’s surprise. (The Fourth Wave reached out to Ms. Moore several times for comment, but to no avail.) This was November, months after the initial presentation. Board meetings occur only three times a year, according to the University webpage, unless there’s a special committee that meets somewhere in between to discuss a particular issue, so decisions take months to go through.

The Board is comprised of alumni, government appointees, and fourteen “special” trustees. Clayton Steup, the Head of the Investment Committee, answered a few questions about his committee’s function and process. There are a number of non-voting members who offer input and expertise to those who do vote, he said in an email. When members have conflicts of interest, “they are expected to excuse themselves from a particular topic or discussion,” which is agreed upon on an annually-signed document.

Expecting members to recuse themselves on basis of conflicts of interest seems dubious at best, considering the likelihood that some, especially members of state government, may have vested interests in the perpetuity of the fossil fuel industry. After all, the state of Pennsylvania subsidized over $3.2 billion in fossil fuels in recent years.

The Coalition has been understandably private about their next few steps. They are, however, studying the process of divestment during South African Apartheid and taking note of previously successful campaigns at other Universities to figure out how to move forward. For example, students at Syracuse University were successful in convincing their board to divest over $1 billion in fossil fuels, a campaign that involved an 18-day sit-in at a campus building; a visible display of student values and demands.

“They haven’t directly said no,” mused Matway. “Making the social responsibility argument is harder because it so much depends on the people in the room and their existing political beliefs, and their existing belief or not in climate change. We have to start from the bottom up and be like ‘climate change is real and climate change is crazy and it’s harming people.’ So that’s kind of where we’re working from.”

The University decides where to invest its money at least partially from recommendations by staff members and consultants, said Mr. Steup. Each member has their own beliefs and priorities, and though they are supposed to, these may not align with the true benefit or will of the University and its constituents. The challenge is to restructure these values, so that University administration not only understands the importance of divesting in fossil fuels, but also redistributes its funds to finance alternative energy and therefore promote the growth of sustainable resources.

As a university with great political, economic, and social influence in the region, Pitt has the opportunity to make a lasting contribution to the global movement against climate change. These changes don’t happen on their own – they require extended and focused pressure from the Pitt community. The work has already begun, but support is always welcomed. In spite of the many logistical leaps and sometimes invisible progress, we’ve seen these efforts work both at Pitt and beyond, and with enough push, they will again.

To stay up to date with Coalition happenings and be notified when support is needed, follow the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition Facebook page or reach out to fossilfreepitt@gmail.com to be added to the mailing list.