Nine hundred years after its founding, the University of Oxford — the oldest university in the English-speaking world — divested from fossil fuels. In early 2020, a couple of months before the official announcement, I sat around a restaurant table with the divestment campaign’s principal organizers. It was late, and they argued about strategy while the kitchen crew around us placed chairs onto tables and began to sweep.
The politics were tangled, like the roots of a plant trying to outgrow its container. The activist left felt the proposal wasn’t radical enough. An eminent faculty member had misgivings in the opposite direction. I didn’t say much. I had graduated from Oxford two years before and moved away to another English university town; besides, it was more interesting to listen.
From 2014 to 2015, I co-led a fossil fuel divestment campaign at Oberlin College. My classmates and I did our best to present divestment as an opportunity for the College to lead on an issue of moral and social urgency. And when I look back at the text of our request, I feel proud of our work. Oberlin’s legacy, we said, is rooted in having the courage to follow our convictions, particularly when those convictions lead us into terra incognita.
Obies wear this legacy with pride. The first university in the United States to admit both men and women. The second to admit African Americans. One of the first colleges to have coeducational dorms. These were radical choices in their day, and history has been kind to Oberlin’s willingness to take risks and lead. In our proposal to the Board of Trustees in 2015, we did our best to tap into that legacy. At the time, university divestment was widely discussed but rarely adopted:
Given the current political and economic reality, it seems surprising that neither Oberlin nor any of its peer institutions have committed to divesting from fossil fuels. The window for Oberlin to be a leader in this movement is quickly closing.
In the past six years, that window closed. Brown University, Cornell University, Georgetown University, Middlebury College, Pitzer College, and the entire University of California system are just a handful of the dozens of U.S.-based educational institutions that have divested in recent years. Five years ago, we asked the Board of Trustees to choose whether or not to lead. Today, the Board is faced with a new decision: whether to follow our more courageous peers, or to continue to remain on the sidelines.
Divestment is complicated. When stocks are sold, they find new buyers. And most buyers are less scrupulous than the Oberlin College Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee, which oversees the College’s $1 billion endowment.
All too often, activists are snared into arguments about whether divestment “works” based on this narrow theory of change. Try explaining your decision to take a bus instead of an airplane and you might face a similar response: “The plane is going to take off whether or not you’re on board,” or, “Someone else will buy the ticket.” It’s an insidious fallacy.
To be clear: Oberlin has no immediate power to control the stock price of Exxon Mobil or its access to capital. The real power of divestment is pure politics.
Divestment is an act of protest — against the $110 million in annual lobbying expenditures by the oil and gas sector in 2020. Against the industry’s significant contributions to Republican candidates in the last election cycle. Against the $20 billion in annual direct subsidies to coal, oil, and gas producers. And finally, against the 139 members of Congress who continue to deny the existence of anthropogenic warming.
All protests are necessarily public. If a Midwestern liberal arts college silently divests from fossil fuels — and nobody is around to hear it — then it does not make one bit of difference. But public divestment adds momentum to a growing cascade of social and political progress.
Earlier this year, BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, announced that it will require companies to disclose their plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Rio Tinto and BHP, the world’s two largest mining companies, divested their coal assets in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Within one decade, a movement pioneered on college campuses began driving action in the most unlikely corners of society and at great remove from the activist circles where it began. That’s how divestment works.
At Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, dinner each night is illuminated only by candlelight, which barely reaches the ceiling of the 16th-century Gothic hall. The meal begins with a bell and a Latin grace recited in shameless British phonetics. Oil paintings of former masters hang above the long oak tables, where diners wear flowing black robes over their suits and gowns and become reliably drunk on cheap French wine. The food is awful.
Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world. Ask a question about why something happens the way it does, and you’ll often hear, “Because we’ve done it that way for 800 years.”
Last year, Cambridge divested from fossil fuels. In announcing Cambridge’s decision, the head of the university said that they were “responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action.” The decision was heralded with widespread approval from the general public, faculty, and students.
With Cambridge and Oxford on board, it’s clear that the hour to divest is growing late. Oberlin’s lack of leadership is beginning to resemble the College’s handling of the last major international divestment movement. In 1979, Obies began advocating for divestment from South Africa in protest of Apartheid. For nearly a decade, campus activists pressed the Board of Trustees for action, to no avail. It wasn’t until 1987, following a two-day student sit-in and the support of then-President Frederick Starr, that the Board agreed to divest. By that time, the opportunity for Oberlin to lead had passed; our divestment resolution followed those of Harvard University and Columbia University, among others.
In my time co-leading the fossil fuel divestment campaign, I never doubted that the Board of Trustees and the College administration wanted to ensure that Oberlin’s future would live up to its past. That legacy surely weighs heavily on all of their decisions today, particularly at a time of crisis in American higher education.
The board recently demonstrated its commitment to a climate-safe future by announcing a $140-million investment in a new low-carbon heating system. This bold decision requires an enormous outlay of capital — a real sacrifice of finite resources. I applaud the board for its leadership, but I note the obvious irony that the College is curtailing physical ties to the fossil fuel industry while leaving fiscal ties intact.
Looking ahead, I have no doubt that Oberlin will divest. It might happen this year, or next year, or in 2030. But with each passing month, the potential impact of Oberlin’s divestment grows smaller. If we continue to delay, we will eventually cross a threshold beyond which our lack of leadership becomes complicity, and our inability to follow the example of our peers becomes a drag upon their courage.
Trustees and President Ambar: Oberlin missed its opportunity to lead, but the fossil fuel divestment movement still needs followers. In 2021, the board should publicly commit to divest from fossil fuels. If there are lingering concerns about fiduciary responsibility, let the decisions of much larger — and more conservative — endowment managers assuage any fears.
In accordance with the board’s own 2014 Resolution for Divestment, I have submitted to the board a new divestment proposal for consideration — an updated version of the well-reasoned resolution that Oberlin students crafted six years ago.
I never dreamed I would write these words, but Oberlin should follow the example of Oxford and Cambridge. Divest any direct holdings in companies listed in the Carbon Underground 200, announce a moratorium on new investments in those same companies, and adopt the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment.