The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

GUEST EDITORIAL: Vanderbilt, it’s time to divest from fossil fuels

Vanderbilt is falling behind other top universities that have already divested from the fossil fuel industry. Until students demand action, millions of endowment dollars will go towards exacerbating the climate crisis.
Student activists hang signs on the Commons Bridge demanding divestment. (Photo courtesy of Dores Divest)

Broadway—10 feet underwater. Nissan Stadium—an Olympic swimming pool. Islands of cars in parking lot oceans. This isn’t the Nashville of a distant climate projection but rather the Nashville of 2010. Ten years ago, landlocked Davidson county experienced catastrophic flooding. Residents were knee-deep in water. Nearly 10,000 people were displaced from their homes, and 26 people lost their lives. The flooding permanently closed hundreds of businesses and left Nashville forever changed. Many would call this case, along with the recent string of hurricanes and wildfires, natural disasters. However, there is nothing natural about the increasing rate and severity of these disasters. 

The Cumberland River floods Nashville in 2010 (The Tennessean/Larry McCormack)

Climate change, like other forms of slow violence, has ambiguous boundaries of impact. This ambiguity allows climate change to fester invisibly, rendering those in power complicit in its exacerbation. And in the case of the climate crisis, those in power include our institution: Vanderbilt University. 

Vanderbilt students, alumni, faculty and staff are integral financial stakeholders of the university. Without our continued investment of tuition dollars and donations, Vanderbilt would cease to prosper. Our say should matter, yet Vanderbilt’s investment of its $7 billion endowment currently does not reflect the attitudes of its stakeholders, let alone demonstrate care for their safety. 

Vanderbilt students are victims of the climate crises. Our future children are victims of the climate crises. Nashville’s citizens are victims of the climate crises. Yet, according to the 2020 University Financial Report, Vanderbilt University has a whopping $300 million dollars invested in “natural resources” that include “oil and gas production” and “energy” related services. Through its financial investment, Vanderbilt is signaling to us that it is willing to promulgate violence against our environment and our community.

This is why we call upon Vanderbilt University to immediately divest from fossil fuels, develop transparent investment guidelines and reinvest in high-performing ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investments. 

To be clear, fossil fuel companies are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change. By direct cause and effect, the fuel products they continue to extract, sell and burn release the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that cause climate change. By continuing to subsidize fossil fuels, we are undercutting the budding renewable energy industry that urgently needs capital to develop the technology and markets needed to meet the emission targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Most countries, including the U.S., are not meeting those targets with government commitments alone. Much as university divestment was an important piece to toppling apartheid in South Africa, fossil fuel divestment will take all of us to achieve the results needed to avoid catastrophe.

While university officials may claim the financial impracticality of divestment, studies have shown that sustainable investing strategies implemented by other universities “in general, perform as well or better than traditional approaches.” Researchers at Vanderbilt University and Roger Williams University School of Law have found similar findings in their study featuring 35 universities who have partially or completely divested from 2011 to 2018. According to the study, the “effect of full and partial divestment suggest that either form of divestment does not yield discernible consequenceseither positive or negativefor endowment values, at statistically significant levels.” Their findings to date have challenged the widely held assumption that fossil fuel divestment yields negative returns to endowments. Other top schools have already taken the initiative, including Cornell and Georgetown, who signed on to divestment earlier this year. Clearly, our endowment returns are not at risk, but we, the people who are affected by climate change, are.  

With potential divestment in mind, let’s recognize what climate change entails: unprecedented floods, wildfires, hurricanes and droughts.

These effects have already burned down homes, drowned cities, and exacerbated famine, creating millions of climate refugees and directly killing thousands just last year. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), climate change’s most severe impacts will also include “more frequent and intense heat waves, widespread crop failures and dramatic shifts in animal and plant ranges.” These consequences will have widespread ripple effects that will plague our world for generations.

To circumvent these consequences, the precedent already exists for Vanderbilt to divest its endowment from companies that sponsor injustice. Under Chancellor Zeppos’s leadership in 2013, the university divested its entire $26 million investment from Emvest, an agricultural operations corporation. Why take such drastic action? The company misled investors about its “land grabbing” practices, which involved the seizure of land for profit in five sub-Saharan African countries without the consent of the communities who lived there. Who else has a well-documented history of misleading the public on the harm it’s causing? The fossil fuel industry, of course. In fact, the industry knew as early as the 1970s that climate change would be devastating. If you think the energy industry has changed much since then, think again: big oil spent a billion dollars just last year on anti-climate lobbying, a move the UCS flagged as alarming. If Emvest isn’t to be trusted with our endowment dollars, then certainly fossil fuel companies shouldn’t be either.

However, the university didn’t immediately divest from Emvest when its unethical business practices became apparent: it took 12 months of sustained student pressure on the administration. Regrettably, it seems that Vanderbilt is again placing the burden on students to demand divestment. It is not enough for senators in the Vanderbilt Student Government (VSG) to pass a resolution (as the university simply ignored a bill VSG passed in 2013 calling for divestment). Rather, a strong grassroots show of force is needed to elicit a response from the administration. In the case of Emvest, the board of trustees took action only after the establishment of a large, multi-week tent city outside of Kirkland Hall. This event culminated with news crews and a tent being suspended in mid-air on weather balloons high above the administrative building. What will it take for fossil fuel divestment?

The DivestVU movement is petitioning the administration for change. As of today, the petition has 625 signatures and counting. New resolutions are being drafted in the VSG and Graduate Council and new students are continuously joining the campaign’s GroupMe. To millions around the world and for many within the Vanderbilt community, climate change is not a future forecast to be ignored, but a reality we must deal with today. 

California still burns red. Puerto Rico still mourns its Maria victims. Miami still floods without a drop of rain. Until Vanderbilt divests completely from fossil fuels, it’s not just complicit in the violence of climate change: it’s actively footing the bill. 

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About the Contributor
Miguel Moravec, Guest Writer
Miguel Moravec (BA ‘18, MS ‘22) was a campus organizer and president of the Graduate Student Council. Miguel currently works on state and federal policy at an energy think tank in Washington D.C. He can be reached at [email protected].
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The Vanderbilt Hustler welcomes and encourages readers to engage with content and express opinions through the comment sections on our website and social media platforms. The Hustler reserves the right to remove comments that contain vulgarity, hate speech, personal attacks or that appear to be spam, commercial promotion or impersonation. The comment sections are moderated by our Editor-in-Chief, Rachael Perrotta, and our Social Media Director, Chloe Postlewaite. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].
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Caroline Fedly
3 years ago

A well written article that unfortunately is not based on enough knowledge of how investment works. Universities do not just simply break their contracts and divest. I wonder if the people who wrote the article have cars, heat or use the many items made from fossil fuels? It is not realistic to suddenly drop oil and gas and live like the dark ages and pretend that you think this can be accomplished suddenly. The Vanderbilt investment office has made it possible for thousands upon thousands of students to obtain a free education from one of the best universities in the country. In order to accomplish this a lot of hard work goes into their days and off time working to find qualified managers. Out of 7 billion 300 million is not much at all. The absolute disaster that would happen if somehow we all stopped using gas and oil would be so much more “violent” to people. All angles were not covered in this article.

Ryan Denham
3 years ago
Reply to  Caroline Fedly

Caroline, it doesn’t appear that you understand finance very well or are up to speed on how many institutions have divested from fossil fuels. 

More than half of the Universities in the UK have divested. The entire University of California system has divested. Johns Hopkins, Cornell, American, Brown and many other major universities have indeed divested. Furthermore many large American cities have divested from dirty oil including New York City, San Francisco, Denver and Washington DC. So yes, colleges, cities and other institutions can absolutely choose to divest. Around 14.5 trillion dollars has now been divested from portfolios around the world. Some other notable mentions include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, Blackrock, and the Irish government. 

Finally, the real absolute disaster that we face is unchecked climate change. It can end civilization as we know it.