Illustration by Anne Scotti, CC '16.

Illustration by Anne Scotti, CC ’16.

In which we present another preview from the upcoming edition of The Blue and White, coming to campus soon. Jen Sluka, CC ’17, brings us this report on Columbia’s investment into fossil fuels and the student groups working to divest. For other news on divestment, see here.

Since Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (BCD) was founded in fall 2012, its momentum has grown rapidly. Last semester, BCD helped to pass the first ballot initiative at Columbia, in which 73% of voting Columbia College students voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Following in the footsteps of movements to divest from companies in South Africa starting in the 1960s, as well as smaller movements to divest from arms dealers and companies in Sudan, BCD calls Columbia’s investments in fossil fuels into question.

While BCD suspects that Columbia is heavily invested in fossil fuels, its members cannot know for sure, as Columbia’s official investments are not released publicly. Robert Hornsby, Associate Vice President for Media Relations, says, “we do not discuss investment strategy, tactics or performance outside the University’s annual report.” The annual financial statements for the trustees of Columbia University, a 37-page document, does little to describe how Columbia chooses its investments. As of June 30, 2012, Columbia had $8.1 billion invested in financial markets, and about $4 billion in real estate, land, buildings, equipment, etc. This $8.1 billion is managed by the Columbia Investment Management Company, LLC (IMC), whose members are chosen and supervised by the Board of Trustees. The IMC does not answer media requests.

There is, however, one group that advises the University’s investments. Founded in March 2000, the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), “advise[s] the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University’s endowments,” according to their website. The ACSRI is currently comprised of four students, four faculty members, and three alumni as voting members, and an administrator and staff member as non-voting members. Student members are nominated by student government; faculty by their divisional vice presidents, deans, and the provost; and alumni by the Executive Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations.

The ACSRI receives confidential information from the University regarding the specifics of Columbia’s investments, and meets around 14 times a year to discuss and research Columbia’s investments and make recommendations to the Board of Trustees.

According to Matthew Chou, CC ’14 and a member of the committee since 2012, “the committee is dedicated to making [the minutes] open to the Columbia community.” From 2006 to 2011, these minutes were posted online, but the postings have become increasingly irregular. In 2011-2012, only two meetings were posted; in 2012-2013, only one. This year, none have been posted, prompting BCD to ask the ACSRI to post the minutes more consistently. Despite their promising to do so, the minutes have not been updated since September 2012.

When I asked Robert Hornsby about the lack of minutes, he emailed back to say that they had been updated. When I checked the website again, minutes of six meetings for the 2012-2013 year had been posted, as well as minutes from two meetings this fall. And the 2011-2012 minutes? Hornsby says that they “were inadvertently lost during a website transition.”

The ACSRI has researched controversial investments, including those in munitions and environmentally-unfriendly companies. During Chou’s tenure on the committee, it analyzed companies in Sudan, placing some on a watch list and some on a divestment list. Chou says “these lists are then provided to the Trustees but adds that “a company’s presence on the list does not imply that Columbia has any stake in the company.” It is unclear whether the trustees have actually carried out any of these recommendations, as no one has been able to provide me with a specific example either of Columbia divesting from controversial groups, or investing more responsibly.

In early November, riding on October’s overwhelming support of the fossil fuel divestment ballot initiative, BCD members Daniela Lapidous, CC ’16, Ryan Elivo, CC ’15, and Iliana Salazar-Dodge, CC ’16, presented their case to the ACSRI. By that time, the ACSRI had already formed a subcommittee to research Columbia’s fossil fuel investments, and according to Lapidous, “the ACSRI said that this was the beginning of a long working relationship to explore the issue together.”

The ACSRI committed to fulfilling BCD’s three main requests: increasing transparency by posting their minutes, helping to build a public panel event featuring members of BCD and the ACSRI for January or February, and, most importantly, researching Columbia’s investments in fossil fuel companies. Lapidous says the ASCRI have given BCD some financial information, but are “still working” on their request to make public the percent of Columbia’s endowment invested in the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

The BCD members hoped that the ACSRI would be able to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees by the first week after winter break, but the ACSRI said that its members needed until the end of the year to complete their research. Despite the drawn-out timeline, Lapidous remains positive about BCD’s collaboration with the ACSRI, adding that she and other BCD members “appreciate their time and efforts to fully understand the issue.”

Meanwhile, Lapidous says that among BCD’s plans for next semester are “to build student power in a community where a non-student minority makes decisions for a student majority […] and to connect with the growing national student movement.”

Chou says that researching the issue of fossil fuel investment and divestment is “on ACSRI’s agenda.”

Columbia’s institutional history may provide hope for fossil fuel divestment. In 1978, Columbia became one of the first universities to divest from companies who did business with the South African government, and in 1985, prompted by years of student activism, the trustees voted to divest from companies doing business in South Africa, making Columbia the first Ivy League university to do so.

While fossil fuels play a much bigger part in the United States economy than South African business, Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology, sees fossil fuel divestment as following in the footsteps of divestment from companies in South Africa. Gitlin, who was involved in the South African divestment campaign at Harvard as an alumnus and at Berkeley as a professor, draws parallels between the two movements. He points out that the movement is spread across many campuses and is part of “a much larger movement” to address the threat of climate change that also exists outside of universities. He also points out that “there’s all kinds of civil disobedience aimed at fossil fuel holdings.” Civil disobedience was a key component of the movement for South Africa.

According to Gitlin, the demand of the divestment organizers is for “a different way of understanding the university”—as a university with a “moral function,” and not simply “a commercial enterprise whose overriding goal is to maximize its returns.” He added, “In a setting in which the main institutions have failed to address climate change—I mean government regulators and the corporations themselves—that it’s then incumbent upon universities to provide the leadership that’s otherwise missing.” If and when the ACSRI completes its research, we will see if the Trustees adopt this mindset and choose divestment like they did in 1985.