Opinion: Time for Vanderbilt to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Simon Silverberg

Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Boston University, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, London School of Economics, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California system, University of Edinburgh. Over recent years, universities around the globe have acknowledged scientific truths, the passion of their students and faculty, and the moral imperatives they possess to divest, in some form, from fossil fuel companies, and it is time for Vanderbilt to do the same.

In 2013, Vanderbilt launched the FutureVU initiative, which is intent on changing the University in the best possible way for future students, administrators, faculty and staff. “FutureVU provides a framework for the development of campus for the next 20 to 30 years, while considering core themes such as diversity and inclusion, environmental sustainability, connectivity and community enhancement, increased development and traffic around campus and preservation of the historic park-like setting.” Multiple committees have been convened to plan out the University’s path to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and promising environmental initiatives such as solar panels on top of the tennis center, multiple green roofs across campus, and a food waste composting program have been implemented in recent years. With investment in these committees and projects, putting our endowment towards companies that promote expanded use and discovery of greenhouse gas emitting fuels is an inconsistent and unproductive allocation of funds. If we deem the greening of campus as a core mission of this University, then avoiding all practices that harm the environment is the only logical action.

In the past few decades, our University has doubled down on its commitment to offer the Vanderbilt experience to all who qualify regardless of the applicant’s ability to pay. This commitment, embodied by Opportunity Vanderbilt, has led, in addition to a jump in collegiate rankings, to the most competitive and diverse set of students that Vanderbilt has had in its 140 year history. The newly formed office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has furthered the administration’s commitment to addressing the needs of underserved populations on campus. The reality of climate change is that the poorest individuals in the world are the most vulnerable to its irreparable effects. Again, if we have deemed it a priority to reach out to disadvantaged students around the world, it is a moral failing to profit off of the practices that put these individual’s well being in jeopardy.

The case for divestment holds many worthwhile counterarguments that will shortly be addressed. Despite these concerns discussed below, Vanderbilt can expect divestment to leave the university in better economic and ethical conditions.

Primarily, the argument is often made that divestment will not have an impact on the actual profits or practices of fossil fuel companies. This is most probably the case. However, that is not the ultimate goal. While financially bankrupting companies is not possible, morally bankrupting these organizations is well within possibility. If climate change is wrong, profiting off climate change is wrong as well. Trillions of dollars have already been divested from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies, preparing many cities, universities, banks, and religious institutions for the modern world of more innovative, cleaner, and safer alternatives[1].

Additionally, one of the more cogent arguments against divestment from fossil fuel companies is that the school will lose money and will be able to put fewer resources towards vital campus needs, particularly Opportunity Vanderbilt. This is an important argument that demands thoughtful consideration. Recent studies have shown that divested portfolios do not perform worse in any statistically significant manner[2], primarily because fossil fuel companies do not perform above market average[3]. Furthermore, as prices for renewable energy alternatives continue to rapidly decline, fossil fuel investments may become jeopardized as consumers and companies chose cleaner alternatives for economic practicality purposes.

Furthermore, it has been argued that the portfolio of a University should not be used for “political purposes.” However using investments as a means to bring about positive social change has been a cornerstone of activism in Nashville and America’s history. Our University’s leaders have not been hesitant to comment on political issues, particularly in recent years; thus, Vanderbilt has consistently played the role of a political institution. Our endowment should not be exempted from these charges.

We primarily hope that University leaders take time to envision what divestment could feasibly look like at Vanderbilt. With an endowment that is unique to Vanderbilt, the taking of our investments out of fossil fuel companies will be its own process, not identical to other universities. We believe that a decade will be sufficient enough time to divest our endowment without jeopardizing returns.

Universities that have divested their endowments have done so in many ways. Some schools have just divested from companies that produce the most harmful emissions, specifically companies that access coal and tar sands. Other universities have been more progressive by divesting from the entirety of the fossil fuel industry. We hope for the latter yet are aware of the realities our school faces.

All in all, we want a conversation. In taking this step, or at least having a genuine conversation about it, Vanderbilt will move closer to its commitment to social progress and becoming a more responsible citizen of the 21st century. Higher educational is about investing in the future leaders of the world. Continued funding of fossil fuel companies puts at risk the very future students face.


[1] https://www.arabellaadvisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Measuring-the-Growth-of-the-Divestment-Movement.pdf

[2] https://ideas.repec.org/p/gro/rugsom/16005-eef.html

[3] https://ideas.repec.org/p/gro/rugsom/17001-eef.html