Despite pushback from the administration, students are moving forward with a campaign to get the University to divest its financial holdings in fossil fuel companies.
Earlier this month, Divestment at Penn — an organization created in November 2012 amidst similar environmental movements at peer schools — had its first meeting with Penn administrators.
Although the administration denied DAP’s request to form a special committee on divestment, group members remain optimistic about the movement’s future on campus.
“We might not have gotten what we wanted from that meeting, but we feel now that we at least have a clear direction and vision,” said School of Social Policy & Practice first-year student Brendan Sculley, who created a divestment petition on global climate change website 350.org that now has more than 220 signatures. “I think we can expect to see a lot of movement on this soon, especially once next school year gets going.”
DAP — which has met on a weekly basis since February and has a core membership of about eight students — is arguing that divestment would go a long way toward sending a message to the fossil fuel industry. Although members acknowledge that Penn giving up its financial holdings in the industry would not have an especially noticeable impact, they believe it would make a strong symbolic statement.
The group calls in its petition for Penn to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds including fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.”
Although Penn does not publicize its investments, approximately 3.6 percent of the Associated Investments Fund — which comprises the vast majority of the University’s $6.8 billion endowment — was invested in natural resources at the end of fiscal year 2012, according to the school’s most recent financial report.
In addition to fossil fuel holdings in its natural resource investments, Penn currently has “modest exposure” to fossil fuel companies in other asset classes, Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli acknowledged earlier this year.
Carnaroli, who called the meeting with DAP a “healthy dialogue,” remains wary about divestment given the potential negative impact it could have on the endowment’s performance.
“To ban the entire asset class in my mind is concerning,” he said. “I haven’t learned anything new about the issue over the past few months that suggests to me that this would meet our standards for divestment.”
During the meeting, Carnaroli added, he gave the students the idea of narrowing their focus — potentially calling on the University to divest from a small handful of fossil fuel companies rather than the majority of the industry.
Any formal divestment proposal by the students must first be brought up in front of University Council and would ultimately have to be approved by the Board of Trustees. The University last chose to divest in 2006, when it said it would prohibit future holdings in seven oil companies that operated in Sudan.
Since its meeting with the administration, DAP has been working on drafting a resolution that it hopes to circulate around campus soon. When students return in the fall, the group is planning to reach out to other organizations — including student government branches — to build support for the divestment movement.
“I continue to be shocked by how people don’t realize how important and severe climate change is,” Engineering junior and DAP member Arielle Clynes said. “People look up to institutions like Penn, and if we can change things here, then it bodes well for us as a whole.”
While the divestment movement has picked up traction at a number of Penn’s peer schools in recent months, only a small handful of institutions so far — including Hampshire and Unity colleges in New England — have agreed to divest.
“If a school like Penn were to divest, it really puts this issue in the mainstream,” College freshman and DAP member Will Dossett added.
For his part, Carnaroli said the administration will continue to hear students’ concerns on the issue, even if it may not fully agree with them.
“It’s still early on in this process, and the onus is on the students to present a specific proposal and move this forward,” Carnaroli said. “The ball’s in their court.”
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