University of Pennsylvania Rejects Calls for Fossil-Fuel Divestment

Published November 16, 2016

The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) rejected calls from activist groups to divest all fossil-fuel holdings in its endowment.

UPenn’s Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Divestment says the University’s fossil-fuel investments are not equivalent to moral corruption.

In a September 22, 2016, letter to Fossil Free Penn, one of the groups demanding UPenn divest its holdings, David Cohen, the chairman of UPenn’s Board of Trustees, wrote the purported “moral evil” protesters attribute to fossil-fuel companies such as ExxonMobil is not “on par with apartheid or genocide.”

“While the Trustees recognize that the ‘bar’ of moral evil presents a rigorously high barrier of consideration, we are resolute in our belief that such a high barrier must be maintained so that investment decisions and the endowment are not used for the purpose of making public policy statements,” Cohen wrote.

Stanford Rejection

Stanford University preceded Penn by rejecting divestment calls in April 2016.

Stanford’s Board of Trustees established an Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL), made up of faculty members, students, and alumni, to advise on whether to divest the university’s fossil-fuel investments.

With $22 billion in assets, Stanford has the third-largest university endowment in the world, so a decision in favor of divestment would have had far-reaching implications for how other universities invest. However, APIRL advised the school not to do so.

In its April 25 statement announcing the decision not to divest, Stanford’s Board of Trustees explained, “At the present moment oil and gas remain integral components of the global economy, essential to the daily lives of billions of people in both developed and emerging economies.”

Assault on Free Speech

Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects for the National Association of Scholars, says the divestment campaign is a partisan political assault on free speech.

“The fossil-fuel divestment campaign is an assault on freedom of inquiry and academic integrity,” said Peterson. “It is a movement that argues ad hominem and demonizes its opponents.

“The University of Pennsylvania saw through the movement, and after thoroughly vetting the issue, decided against divesting coal, oil, and gas companies,” Peterson said. “Penn’s advisory committee considered a four-part test for divestment, including whether the divestment would target a ‘moral evil’ that contradicts a core university value and creates ‘substantial social injury,’ unanimously concluding the fossil-fuel divestment proposal does not meet the criteria for divestment.”

Dan Simmons, vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, also lauds UPenn’s divestment decision.

“It’s always good to see a university get things right,” said Simmons. “Natural gas, oil, and coal produce affordable, reliable energy as well as high-tech products, including pharmaceuticals, Kevlar, plastics, and computer equipment. That’s what the divestment activists are fighting against.”

Sustainability Concessions

“The fossil-fuel divestment campaign aims to use the university as an instrument of partisan politics, premised on the idea that turning university endowments into political billboards could nudge politicians to adopt new environmental regulations favored by the political left,” Peterson said. “I applaud the University of Pennsylvania for declining to prostrate its endowment before the engines of partisan politics, but I am disappointed the trustees, in declining to divest, attempted to placate divestment activists with a slate of new policies entrenching the university’s efforts to achieve ‘sustainability.’

Peterson says UPenn’s embrace of the sustainability movement is a mistake.

“In the letter explaining their decision not to divest, the trustees outline a plan to ‘enhance’ sustainability training and research, and aver ‘environmental sustainability’ is ‘one of Penn’s highest priorities,'” Peterson said. “The ideology of sustainability demands needless limits on economic, political, and intellectual freedom, justified as the price that must be paid to secure the wellbeing of future generations.

“The sustainability movement’s foundation is just as shaky as that of the fossil-fuel divestment movement,” Peterson said. “I regret the University of Pennsylvania, in rejecting one political folly, has entrenched another.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.

Internet Info

Peter Wood and Rachelle Peterson, “Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism,” National Association of Scholars, March 2015: