Unity College Board of Trustees votes to divest from fossil fuels

I am proud to say that earlier today the Unity College Board of Trustees voted to divest the College endowment from fossil fuels.  The following editorial is my statement to the public about this important step.

Time for higher education to take a stand on climate

Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey
Unity College
Unity, ME 04988

5 November 2012

We are running out of time.  While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change, the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.

The way forward is clear, though for many confrontation-averse academics the path seems impassable.  It requires action that is unnatural to the scientifically initiated:  to fight to regain the territory illegitimately occupied by the climate change deniers.

Every day that we avoid taking action represents additional emissions, and additional infrastructure that is dependent on our fossil fuel based economy.  In our zeal to be collegial, we engage with those who are paid by vested interests to argue that our Earth is not in crisis.  When these individuals demonize public investment in alternative energy, we fail to point out how the oil industry benefited from significant taxpayer support in its infancy and continues to receive government subsidies today.  We also sidestep the thorny issue of how oil and coal, in particular, fund large-scale organized opposition efforts to deny legitimate science, winning the battle for climate change public opinion with slogans, junk science, and money.

While there is much uncertainty about how climate change will play out with respect to specific regions and weather patterns, one thing is very clear:  Our current emissions trajectory will carry us beyond 5oC average global warming by 2100.   This will be a planet that is not consistent with our civilization and science shows us that the impact will be largely irreversible for a millennium.  I don’t know how the stakes could get any higher.

Higher education is positioned to determine the future by training a generation of problem solvers.  As educators, we have an obligation to do so. Unlike any time in the history of higher education, we must now produce leading-edge professionals who are able to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, and understand social, economic, and resource tradeoffs among possible solutions.  Imagine being a college president and looking in the mirror twenty years from now.  What would you see?  Would you be looking at a professional who did his or her best to avert catastrophe?  For me, the alternative is unacceptable.

Those within higher education must now do something they have largely avoided at all costs: confront the policy makers who refuse to accept scientific reality.  We must be willing to lead by example. Like the colleges and universities of the 1980’s that disinvested from apartheid South African interests – and successfully pressured the South African government to dismantle the apartheid system – we must be willing to exclude fossil fuels from our investment portfolios. We must divest.

The colleges and universities of this nation have billions invested in fossil fuels. Like the funding of public campaigns to deny climate change, such investments are fundamentally unethical.  The Terrifying Math of the 350.org campaign is based on realistic, reviewed science. Moreover, in our country it is clear that economic pressure gets results where other means fail. If we are to honor our commitment to the future, divestment is not optional.  This is especially true for Unity College, where Sustainability Science, as developed by the U.S. National Academy of Science, guides our academic mission.

I am proud to be a part of the 350.org program of divestment, and I am especially proud of the Unity College Board of Trustees for their willingness to make this affiliation.  Indeed, the Trustees have been on the path of divestment for over five years.  The Trustees have looked at the College’s finances in the context of our ethical obligation to our students, and they have chosen to make a stand.   I can think of no stronger statement about the mission of Unity College.

Our college community will lead by fearless action.  We will confront policy makers who continue to deny the existence of climate change.  We will encourage those who work in higher education to bravely step out from behind manicured, taxpayer funded hedges, and do what needs to be done.   We will not equivocate, and we will meet those who have been misled by climate change denial in their communities.

The time is long overdue for all investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in employing a destructive business model.  Because of its infrastructure and enormous economic clout, fossil fuel corporations could pump trillions into the development of alternative energy. Government subsidies and stockholder shares could be used constructively to move these corporations to behave responsibly.

Higher education is the crown jewel of the United States system of education, and it remains the envy of the world.  Higher education has always been dedicated to the highest standards of honesty and integrity.  If our nation’s colleges and universities will not take a stand now, who will?

55 thoughts on “Unity College Board of Trustees votes to divest from fossil fuels

  1. This is wonderful news… How exactly are they going to do it, though? I assume much of their endowment is in mutual funds; how are they going to isolate the companies within those funds and divest just from those? I’ve talked to CFOs who are sympathetic to the cause but see “divestment” as little more than symbolic because realistically the fund managers can’t get institutions out of some parts of the funds and not others.

    1. This is an excellent question and you are quite right. Unlike the times of apartheid, the markets are complex and there are fund managers in between the investor and the market.

      First, we are certain that we will have zero direct investment in fossil fuels. Period. Secondly, we operate the relevant part of our endowment through ETFs, and it is quite possible to bias these away from certain sectors. Our investment firm is very comfortable with this approach, and we have worked through the details with them. While we cannot guarantee absolute zero at any given time, we can promise with great comfort that we will seek this zero point and never rise above a negligible value summed over any given year. Any very small return on this part can then be folded into the our sustainability revolving fund.

      I recommend this approach for other institutions, and several are having this discussion. If enough colleges and universities take this approach, it will do serious damage to an industry that has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not care about the future of this planet. Note that energy is between 30 and 40% of the overall market, and thus it is likely that many institutions have millions invested in fossil fuels. For large institutions with home-managed endowments, the removal of the direct investment component will have a major impact. At the same time this approach will supply some minor funds for reducing the institutional carbon footprint, thus further limiting the leverage of this industry.

      The good news with respect to fiscal responsibility for the College is that our estimates show that divesting is consistent with maintaining a return that will continue to beat the market averages under current prices. Thus, we feel like this is a win-win approach for the College and for the planet. When fossil fuel prices rise, which they will, we should then loudly reject the notion that a divested portfolio is “underperforming.”

      1. I applaud Unity for taking action! The college makes me proud to be a graduate. Keep up the great work and the pressure on other institutions to follow suit.

    2. This is great news. My father, Martin Rosinski was a professor at Unity until 1986. He was an ardent evironmentalist and I know that he would be so proud of this action taken by Untiy College.

      Carol Rosinski

  2. Yeah Unity, or as we use to call it on the UNH Woodsman’s team “Lunity College” I enjoyed some fun weekends at Lunity back in the early 80’s but this by far the most impressive bit of college action I have seen. A small check to the endowment fund will be forth coming to help “pay it forward”. Congradulations LUNITY! Sounds more impressive than the actions of that funny little college across the highway to the north.

    1. I hope many more people take your leadership role, Will and “pay forward or pay back” ~ or however you look at it. The reality is tuition does not cover anywhere near the real cost of education and the world needs more Unity students. Even though my Unity student only graduated last May, and still has student loans that have not even started to come due, I know and appreciate the importance of regular annual support and special interest support. This is a bold step and I applaud Unity for taking it. My gift will also be in the mail and I hope others will follow suit.

      Roxie Pin, P ’12

  3. Congratulations on your ethical leadership on this critical problem! I’ve urged the UCC Pension Board and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to follow your example.

  4. Have you given thought to how to pass this on to other colleges? Thank you for the great effort that it took to do this.

  5. I also applaud Mr. Mulkey and Unity College. However, I recently discovered a “dark side” in my efforts to actively fight the fight against climate change. Grid tied solar arrays are being touted by manufacturers and installers as risk free, guaranteed investments. Not the case. I’ve found most residential installations are working fine, but many are being automatically disconnected from the grid several times a day due to inverter / grid incompatibility. Even though inverter manufacturers and installers know this has been happening nation wide, they continue to push these systems on the public without mentioning the risk involved. Normal warranty apparently does not cover this incompatibility. I urge Unity College for their own protection to have this warranty issue addressed “in writing” before purchasing grid tied solar equipment.

    I continue to encourage my adult children and their generation to get involved with all aspects of conservation. Mr. Mulkey’s article from today’s BDN “Time for Higher Education” is now posted front and center on my “Energy Board” for all to see as they enter my home. It’s just unfortunate how quickly the cause has been infiltrated by those looking to make a quick buck.

  6. Excellent. Great leadership. Thanks.

    Peter Schulze, Ph.D.
    Director, Center for Environmental Studies
    Austin College
    Sherman, TX

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About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey is an environmental scientist dedicated to developing undergraduate and graduate programming to build society's capacity for environmental mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Mulkey was the president of Unity College in Unity, Maine from 2011 through 2015. His leadership and forward-looking vision resulted in Unity College being the first college in the U.S. to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the U.S. to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming. Mulkey believes that higher education has an ethical duty to prepare generations of graduates for the extreme sustainability and climate change challenges of this century. After taking his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent over twenty years as a forest ecologist affiliated with the Smithsonian. Mulkey has served as tenured faculty at three doctoral granting universities.