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Members of Fossil Free Penn used a variety of metrics to estimate that four percent of Penn’s $9.6 billion endowment is currently invested in fossil fuel companies.

Credit: Courtesy of Petr Štefek/Creative Commons

A referendum this week will reveal if Penn students support fossil fuel divestment, but the vote is only the first step in a long process leading to change.

Starting Monday, Penn undergraduates can vote in a referendum on whether or not they believe the University should divest from fossil fuels. The student group Fossil Free Penn launched the referendum with a petition, and the Nominations and Elections committee is overseeing the voting process.

In order for the referendum to pass, at least 15 percent of the undergraduate population must vote, with at least 50 percent of voters favoring divestment. However, even if the referendum passes, there is no guarantee that the University will divest from fossil fuels — the motion will then go through six additional steps of approval, ending with the Executive Committee of Trustees, which has the final vote.

“The hurdles are very, very high for those that are looking to divest [from fossil fuel],” professor of philosophy and chair of the Social Responsibility Advisory Committee Michael Weisberg said.

Although Penn does not publish a breakdown of its specific investments, members of Fossil Free Penn used a variety of metrics to estimate that $315 million of Penn’s $9.6 billion endowment is currently invested in fossil fuel companies.

Support for fossil fuel divestment is gaining momentum across peer institutions. On Feb. 12, a group of Harvard students protesting fossil fuel investments staged a sit-in in Massachusetts Hall, which contains the offices of high level administrators, including the president.

Although Stanford decided to terminate its investments from coal, but not all fossil fuels, last May, no Ivy League school has yet divested from fossil fuels.

“On things like this we like to be comfortably among our peers, and our peers have not divested from fossil fuel,” Weisberg said.

Penn has divested from particular industries in previous years, albeit in rare circumstances. In the 1980s, Penn divested from companies that did business in South Africa, and in 2006 Penn divested from oil companies in Sudan in response to the genocide in Darfur. In 2011, Penn decided that it would not put future investments in HEI Hotels and Resorts, which was accused of unlawful anti-organizing practices and unfair working conditions.

Last year a movement advocated for divestment from the tobacco industry with overwhelming support from the University community including students, professors and the University Council. Yet, the proposal did not meet the Trustees’ standard for divestment, which says that an investment must constitute a “moral evil implicating a core University value that is creating a substantial social injury,” and the Trustees decided not to divest.

Penn’s divestment policy encourages financially-minded decisions unswayed by public opinion, reading “there is a strong presumption against the University making investment decisions based upon political, social, or ethical positions held by members of the community.”

“The Trustees have the sole responsibility for making investment decisions, with the overarching goal of protecting and maximizing the resources of the University in support of its primary mission of teaching, research and clinical care,” Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli said in an email statement.

However, Weisberg challenged the idea that only financial considerations should shape Penn’s portfolio. “Penn is not a corporation, it is a community of scholars,” he said.

Even though the referendum may not lead directly to divestment, Fossil Free Penn coordinator and College sophomore Peter Thacher thinks it will be effective.

“The goal of this referendum is to contribute to our pressure on the University to divest,” he said. “I don’t personally expect the University to agree to divest right after this referendum, but we think that after broad student support is proven we can go into negotiations with them and we will have a strong case.”

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