College Divestment Movement Takes on Fossil Fuels After Battling Apartheid With Mandela

Students face stronger headwinds than in the 1980s

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College campuses can sometimes plant the seeds for dramatic shifts in public policy. This was most evident in the 1980s, when students across the country protested apartheid in South Africa. By holding sit-ins in college presidents’ offices, picketing board meetings and even building makeshift South African shantytowns, students pushed their schools to move their endowment money away from companies that did business in the African nation. The University of California system alone divested $3 billion from firms involved in South Africa, part of a torrent of social and economic pressure that helped put an end to the country’s racist regime behind the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president who died last week.

Now, students are trying recapture the fervor that surrounded the anti-apartheid protests for a new goal: getting universities across the country to stop investing in companies that extract fossil fuels. The movement has quickly gained traction with environmentally conscious students, but it faces headwinds that were not present in the anti-apartheid-campaigns.

Students, for their part, see clear similarities between the two issues. “In both of these cases, divestment is a way of using a prestige and the influence of our institution to really stand our ground for what we know to be right,” says Rachel Bishop, a recent graduate of Brown University and a member of Brown Divest Coal, a movement advocating that the school divest from the 15 largest coal companies in the U.S. “The divestment movement from fossil fuels is spreading kind of like wildfire and hopefully to a similar scale that occurred in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.”

But colleges are drawing clearer distinctions between the two campaigns. While seven small schools have announced plans to stop investing money in fossil fuel companies, some large universities with billion-dollar endowments have said they won’t alter their investment strategies.

“Brown’s holdings are much too small for divestiture to reduce corporate profits,” Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote in an open letter in October. “Divestiture would convey only a nebulous statement — that coal is harmful — without speaking to the technological and policy actions needed to reduce the harm from coal.”

Harvard President Drew Faust made a similar argument in an October open letter, saying that Harvard could accomplish more to affect fossil fuel companies’ policies as an actively engaged shareholder than through mostly symbolic divestment.

These schools haven’t abandoned divestment as a strategy entirely. In the 1990s, a number of colleges, including Harvard, sold off their stakes in tobacco companies amid a growing body of evidence of the dangers of smoking cigarettes. More recently, colleges like the University of California system, Harvard and Brown divested from companies doing business in Sudan, in a stand against ongoing violence in Darfur.

With fossil fuels, though, colleges see divestment as a greater threat to their bottom line. During the apartheid era, the companies affected by the divestment movement did not have to upend their business models to gain back university dollars. Colleges could make a clear political statement against apartheid, then reinvest in successful U.S. firms if they closed their South African offices.

“It was probably clearer for both the companies and the people organizing the movement,” says Adele Simmons, the president of Hampshire College during the peak of anti-apartheid activism. “It was easier to have a very very clear goal that would not have a huge impact on the companies.”

Hampshire was the first college in the U.S. to divest from companies with business in South Africa in 1977. Simmons says the move was spurred by students who held regular demonstrations over the issue throughout the school  year. While she sees similarities with today’s student movement, the fossil fuel situation is more complex.

“On one hand, they’re taking this approach because they’re concerned about the impact on their portfolio,” she says. “On the other hand, they’re acknowledging that this is an issue and they want to be engaged in the issue.”

Students are unlikely to be deterred by these facts. Ben Caldecott, an Oxford economist who has studied the effect of divestment initiatives, says students’ efforts have made the fossil fuel campaign the fastest growing divestment initiative ever. But with big schools digging in their heels to keep their energy stocks, its ultimate impact may be harder to measure than the anti-apartheid movement.

“It is impossible for the fossil fuel divestment campaign to have the same impact as the anti-apartheid campaign,” Caldecott said in an email. “The biggest victory for the campaigners will be changes in the policy and regulatory contexts in which fossil fuel companies operate and successfully stigmatizing the worst companies.”