Student group asks Duke to remove investments in fossil fuel industry

Oct. 09, 2013 @ 08:44 PM

About 15 students grabbed signs on the lawn outside of Duke’s Allen Building Wednesday and wrote their future careers down in permanent marker.

Astronaut. Engineer. Educator. Researcher. Chemist. Each stood around a banner that read, “Divest Duke, Go Fossil Free.”

The student activists were all part of Divest Duke, a student-run campaign created last November to call upon Duke to remove its investments in the fossil fuel industry.

The group has an ongoing online petition addressed to Duke President Richard Brodhead and has canvassed the campus with clipboards the past few weeks, and Divest Duke has collected more than 1,100 signatures from students, faculty and alumni.

“Because it is unconscionable to pay for our education with investments that will condemn the planet to climate disaster, we call on Duke University to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil-fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds,” the petition states.

The group asks Duke to help protect the future from climate change pollution by divesting from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies, a list created by the Carbon Tracker Initiative. Companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP made the top of the list.

Divest Duke students say they don’t know how many of these companies have ties to Duke University because Duke’s investments aren’t transparent. Divest Duke has yet to submit a proposal to Brodhead and the university’s investment responsibility committee.

“This is an important and complex issue that requires careful study,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke vice president for public affairs and government relations, in a statement. “The best forum for that is the university's Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, which has been charged with reviewing issues related to Duke's investments and making recommendations to the president.”

Divest Duke plans to present its formal proposal and the petition later this fall. The group currently has 50 active members, and the campaign is organized by Emily Palmer of Green Corps, a field training program for environmental organizing. She isn’t a Duke student.

“We believe such action on behalf of Duke University will not only be a sound decision for our institution’s financial portfolio, but also for the well-being of its current and future graduating classes, who deserve the opportunity to graduate with a future not defined by climate chaos,” according to Divest Duke. 

Divest groups have popped up at universities and colleges around the country. Recently, Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school based in Vermont, and Harvard University turned down campus divest group requests to remove investments from the fossil fuel industry.

Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz cited unanswered questions, such as what would be the threshold for tolerance of the college’s investments and what would be the impact on future returns, as the reasons for concern and the ultimate denial.

“Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the university into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise,” said Harvard President Drew Faust in a statement.

“Leadership requires courage and vision – President Faust demonstrated neither,” said Divest Harvard in a statement Oct. 3. “Today, she chose the fossil fuel industry over her students.”

Duke students, from freshmen to seniors, presented during the demonstration Wednesday in front of the Allen Building.

“Although our generation may not face the worst impacts of climate change, if we do not take action now, then our children will or our grandchildren will,” said Laura Mistretta, a Duke environmental science and policy senior. “This fight extends beyond ourselves.”

“In 100, 50 or 30 years when climate change is no longer a disputed fact, will Duke be able to say that they stood up against climate change or watched on the sidelines maintaining the status quo?” she continued.

Anthony Oliveri, a Duke Ph.D. student in toxicology, spoke about fossil fuels’ future impact on public health. Burning coal causes asthma and respiratory distress, he said. Oil production creates waste that poisons nearby streams and wildlife. Modern natural gas production leaks methane into the air and groundwater.

“Please don’t help usher in this future,” Oliveri said. “Please don’t contribute to the spoilage of our water and our air and our farm land and our play land.”

Rose Hinson joined the movement through her environmental science class, where Divest Duke made a presentation this semester. She’s a freshman who’s leaning toward studying biology.

“If I start early to get my opinions heard, there’s a better chance of them getting through,” Hinson said. “… If Duke makes that stand, I feel like other colleges will really follow suit. Someone’s got to start.”