Virginia students are pushing for fossil fuel divestment. Universities say it’s complicated.

University of Virginia sets 2050 net-zero goal

By: - June 19, 2023 12:02 am

Students deliver a petition to Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao asking for divestment from fossil fuels. (Courtesy of Green Action!)

As scientists continue to warn about the damaging impacts of climate change and how fossil fuel emissions are contributing to it, students at universities in Virginia have looked to their own campuses for action. 

At the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, student-run groups have in recent years led campaigns asking school administrators to divest university endowments of fossil fuel interests and instead invest in clean energy. 

“It’s absolutely vital to the future of our planet that these massive institutions that are managing massive amounts of capital are investing in ways that are supportive of the planet rather than destructive of it,” said Carolyn Hindle, leader of Green Action!, VCU’s student-led group pushing for divestment.

But of those schools, only the University of Virginia has responded to student pressure by altering its investments. 

Some university officials argue investment changes sought by students are difficult and at odds with the school’s need to ensure financial stability of the funds to keep the school operating.

“You want to balance what you’re doing for students today versus what [you’re doing for] students for tomorrow,” said Bruce MacDonald, chief investment officer for VCU Investment Management Company. “How can we do it so we’re not hurting people today and just favoring people tomorrow? But we also don’t want to kill everybody tomorrow.”

The Intentional Endowments Network, an advocacy group that urges colleges and universities to have sustainable endowments that advance an “equitable, low carbon, and regenerative economy,” has tracked 150 universities in the U.S. that have divested their endowments of investments in fossil fuels to date. The first was Unity College in Maine, in 2012, while Harvard University was among the more recent institutions to begin phasing out fossil fuel investments.

“I think there are a lot of approaches that can be effective,” said Georges Dyer, executive director of the network, ranging from fossil fuel divestment, net-zero commitments or investing in climate solutions. But not only does divestment avoid the risk to universities of their assets losing value over time, it also sends a signal that the market is moving away from fossil fuel interests, Dyer said.

“That, in a lot of ways, is where the impact of divestment comes from,” he said.

Student campaigns

In Virginia, student-led university divestment campaigns have taken slightly different approaches, ranging from meetings with administrators to campus rallies to resolutions from student governing bodies.

At the University of Richmond, students in the Green UR group met with university Chief Operating Officer David Hale in February and conducted a march around campus in March.

Students told Hale that continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies would be a riskier financial strategy than investing in increasingly prevalent cleaner energy sources like wind and solar and could therefore threaten the availability of financial aid for students.

Students rally at the University of Richmond in Spring 2022. (Courtesy of Green UR)

“We believe that our institution should be investing in [that] way,” said Mason Manley, former president of Green UR and an organizer with Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

The students’ efforts were assisted by Power Shift Network, an organization focused on teaching younger people how to advocate for climate change mitigation measures, and Mary Finley-Brook, a University of Richmond professor and long-time climate activist.

“When we were protesting on campus we were getting a lot of thumbs up,” Finley-Brook said. “That was from people visiting campus as well as people on campus.” 

In a similar but more dramatic fashion, members of VCU’s Green Action! this April delivered a divestment petition to President Michael Rao’s office that was placed on a model planet in a casket. The petition also asked the university to provide greater transparency on where investments are going and release data about the school’s carbon emissions. 

“They started out very timid, and then they really found their voice this spring,” said retired VCU professor Bill Muth, who also works with the pro-divestment group Third Act.

Virginia Tech students took a more formal approach, explained former graduate student Ryan Wesdock. In 2019, the Student Government Association passed a resolution encouraging the Board of Visitors to request that the Virginia Tech Foundation divest “its liquid holdings in fossil fuels and fossil fuel related industries.” Similar resolutions were passed by the Graduate Student Association and faculty. As the Roanoke Times reported at the time, the university president subsequently announced Virginia Tech would create a committee to examine updates to the school’s climate plan.  

University of Virginia students in DivestUVA, which has been the most successful of Virginia’s groups to date, opted for a strategy of public pressure in the lead up to the spring 2022 semester. DivestUVA published editorials in the school newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, and focused on garnering news coverage from local news outlets such as The Daily Progress and NBC 29

“One of the things that we made a real concerted effort toward, that I think was really effective, was we had an op-ed campaign in the Cav Daily,” said Maille Bowerman, organizer of DivestUVA. “We had a few articles featured on those different platforms, which were really effective I think in getting them to recognize us. And our social media presence is pretty good. Our Instagram is pretty active.”

University responses

Despite student efforts, the University of Richmond, VCU and Virginia Tech have shown little interest in divestment. The schools’ administrations remain largely tight-lipped about their endowments’ investments, with all saying that they hear the students’ demands, but challenges to meet them exist.

“Really, what we’re guided by is our fiduciary, moral and legal obligation to invest prudently,” said Hale of the University of Richmond. Divestment, he said, is “a serious request.”

Both he and MacDonald of VCU emphasized that the oversight of endowments is a nuanced and complex task.

At VCU, the separate management companies that make investment decisions are guided by policy that the school’s Board of Visitors set. Sometimes those boards have different sub-boards that need to sign off on the policy, MacDonald said.

Institutions can put their financial stability at risk by switching investments or placing restrictions on them, MacDonald said. But at the same time, he acknowledged the future of fossil fuel firms is a big unknown as clean energy assets are increasingly viewed as more favorable. 

“If you can make sure that at every step in the investment chain you’re hiring folks who can think independently with the appropriate risk in mind, that’s the best way to go,” MacDonald said.

A crucial component of fossil fuel divestment decisions, MacDonald added, is the pace at which institutions should move on their financial commitments. He pointed to electric vehicles as an example: Even as EVs become more prevalent, nickel needed for their batteries still needs to be mined, meaning investments in that technology now may put funds toward carbon-emitting resources, he said. But as non-carbon emitting EVs scale more in years to come, the net carbon result could be zero or even better.

“It’s complex, and to write a policy that would do it the right way is really hard,” said MacDonald. 

Officials at UVA also declined to be interviewed but pointed to the 2021 creation of an Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility that has engaged with the divestment issue. Composed of the school’s chief operating officer, and a Board of Visitor member, student, alumnus or alumna and faculty member, the committee in 2022 announced a new “Investor Responsibility Framework.” 

While the framework calls for UVA’s investments to be net-zero by 2050, it doesn’t call for any immediate divestments of fossil fuels. Instead, it outlines guidance for investing in fossil fuel producers, including criteria the companies must meet on issues such as transparency and environmental stewardship.

At the time, the university’s investment management company said less than 0.05% of its investments were in fossil fuels. 

“With that being said, we can and should do more—especially in the face of urgent threats like climate change,” the company said in its 2022 statement.

Bowerman said the results at UVA were mixed.

“Obviously not ideal, but we took it as a win,” Bowerman said. “This is better than anything that they’ve done before, but it’s not divestment.”

Virginia Tech declined a request for an interview on divestment, saying the endowment is run by a private foundation. 


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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.