Tufts begins review of fossil fuel investment following student activists’ proposal

A student walks in front of Ballou Hall on Tufts' main campus in Medford/Somerville on Oct. 5, 2016. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily Archives

Tufts University decided last week to convene an investment advisory committee, which will review Tufts’ investments in the fossil fuel industry and advise the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee on its findings.

The decision to activate the Responsible Investment Advisory Group (RIAG), which the Board of Trustees voted to establish in November 2019, follows nearly seven years of student activism on the issue as well as a formal proposal submitted by members of Tufts Climate Action (TCA) encouraging Tufts to join more than half a dozen of its peer institutions in divesting its endowment from fossil fuels.

According to the Board of Trustees’ policies, the purpose and scope of the RIAG’s review are defined by the proposal that the administration chooses to act upon. In this case, the proposals were laid out in a memorandum from members of TCA and sponsored by the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, one of the approved bodies that can sponsor a proposal as per the Board of Trustees’ policies.

The proposal, which was sent to Executive Vice President Mike Howard on Dec. 6, 2019, calls on the university to divest from its direct and indirect holdings in the fossil fuel industry. It details the wide-reaching effects of climate change and outlines how fossil fuel divestment at Tufts would impact the fossil fuel industry and contribute to the climate justice movement.

Celia Bottger, a member of TCA and one of the five co-authors of the proposal, applauded the university’s decision to convene the RIAG as a shift in the right direction for the divestment campaign. She pointed to TCA’s actions last semester as well as its activism over the last several years as reasons for the change in momentum.

“This is the first step in the process of getting Tufts to divest from fossil fuels, which is the result of years and years of tireless student activism,” Bottger, a senior, said.

TCA has been pressuring the university to divest from its investments in fossil fuels since 2012. According to a 2014 statement from University President Anthony Monaco, the TCU Senate passed a resolution organized by TCA in February 2013 asking the Board of Trustees to refrain from any new investment in fossil fuel companies, which was followed by a student referendum that passed later that year urging the university to divest from fossil fuels entirely.

These actions prompted Monaco to establish the Tufts Divestment Working Group, comprised of students, faculty, administrators and trustees, in April 2013. Along with investigating a sustainability fund, the Divestment Working Group was tasked with examining the impacts of divestment on the institution, according to the statement.

In 2014, however, the Board of Trustees accepted the recommendations of a Divestment Working Group report whose majority opinion was not to divest, citing a $75 million loss in the market value of the university’s endowment in the five years following a hypothetical divestment. 

On March 31, 2019, TCU Senate passed another resolution authored by TCA members calling on the university to transition to a carbon-neutral endowment and to disclose information on Tufts’ connections to the fossil fuel industry.

The resolution called for a response from the university by October 2019; according to TCA member Hanna Carr, TCA ramped up its climate activism efforts last semester in part to force Tufts to acknowledge the proposal. This activism included a petition that encouraged alumni and parents to withhold donations to Tufts until the university divested from fossil fuels, two university-wide strikes to demand action on the climate crisis and weekly protests on the sidewalk outside of Ballou Hall.

“There was a real energy on campus last semester around our divestment campaign, and I think this escalation was necessary in bringing Tufts to the table,” Carr, a senior, said.

TCU Senate published an Oct. 7 letter from Howard in response to the resolution. It outlined his plans to establish an advisory group to the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees which would review the university’s investments in fossil fuels.

According to Carr, Howard then met with student activists from TCA after the Board approved the creation of the RIAG at its meeting on Nov. 2. Since then, Carr and Bottger both said that Howard has effectively served as a liaison between the activists and the Tufts administration, which has been crucial for getting the ball rolling on divestment.

“He is really helping facilitate this process for us,” Carr said. “He’s not hiding from student activists — instead, he’s embracing Tufts’ culture of student activism and giving us a voice.”

TCA began drafting a formal fossil fuel divestment proposal for the RIAG as soon as it learned of the group’s establishment. Alongside Carr and Bottger, the proposal was co-authored by fellow TCA members Erica Nork, Caro Fett and Temple Miller-Hodgkin. Paul Joseph and Ann Rappaport also assisted with drafting the proposal, according to Bottger.

Once drafted, a student must present their proposal to one of the approved bodies that can sponsor it, which include the TCU Senate, the Faculty Senate, the Alumni Council and any of the graduate student councils.

The TCU Senate, however, decided to sponsor the proposal without a formal presentation from TCA. According to TCU President Shannon Lee, this was because TCU Senate had already passed TCA’s carbon neutral endowment resolution in March 2019 and the language in the new proposal was similar to that of TCA’s divestment resolution from 2013.

“TCA had already made the case for divestment, which both the Senate and the student body have overwhelmingly supported, so Mike Howard, TCA and the Senate all agreed that it would be a little bit silly for the group to come in again,” Lee, a senior, said. “And given the urgency of the issue, we really didn’t want to delay the convening of the RIAG.”

The RIAG will be composed of three trustees appointed by the Board, Tufts’ chief investment officer, the vice president of finance or their representatives, as well as two students and two faculty members appointed by the provost, according to the Board’s policies. According to Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of media relations, the process of identifying committee members is now underway.

Once its members are appointed, the group will review the proposal, request pertinent information from the Tufts University Investment Office and write a nonbinding recommendation to the Board’s Investment Committee, which will make the final decision regarding divestment.

Collins said that a timeline for the group’s work will be devised once the group begins meeting.

The convening of the RIAG comes as some of Tufts’ peer institutions have already made public commitments to fully divest their endowments from fossil fuels. Notably, the University of California system announced last September that it is cutting fossil fuels from its approximately $83.4 billion investment portfolio due to the financial risk the assets pose, adding a potential financial incentive to a movement driven by environmental concerns.

As for TCA, its members say that that group’s top priority is now to continue to educate the campus about the importance of divestment so that its movement will not lose momentum during the RIAG’s review.

“We are still focused on advocating for divestment and making sure that the issue doesn’t slip to the wayside just because it is finally being addressed again by administration,” Carr said. “And I think recent extreme climate emergencies across the world — right now I’m thinking about the fires in Australia, for example — contribute to the urgency of the RIAG review.”

Robert Kaplan contributed reporting to this article.


COPYRIGHT 2020 THE TUFTS DAILY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.