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Will Duke divest from fossil fuels? Students pushing for it may soon get an answer

After years of student action and campus dialogue on the issue, the question of whether Duke will divest its investments from fossil fuels may be answered soon.

The Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility is aiming to make a decision next semester on whether to recommend that Duke divest its endowment and other assets from fossil fuels, the chair of the committee said.

The announcement comes after renewed pushes for divestment from student groups such as the Duke Climate Coalition. The Duke Student Government Senate recently passed a resolution calling for the ACIR to recommend divestment by 2024; in doing so, it joined groups such the Graduate and Professional Student Council and the Undergraduate Environmental Affairs Committee. 

If the ACIR passes a resolution supporting divestment, President Price will have the option to present a version of the recommendation to the Board of Trustees. The Board could then vote on whether to direct the Duke Management Company (DUMAC) to begin the process of divestment.

The push for divestment began in 2014, when a group called Divest Duke—which was later folded into the Climate Coalition—presented a case to the ACIR calling for divestment. 

“It was pretty grassroots-led,” senior Ethan Miller said. “I think they had over seven thousand signatures when that campaign presented to the ACIR. That was pretty impressive.” 

Miller works on the Duke Climate Coalition’s divestment campaign. 

The ACIR, formed in 2013, is charged with making recommendations to Duke’s president regarding the ethical nature of Duke’s investments. The committee’s charter states that it may recommend divesting from a certain group of companies when “when the University community has engaged in substantive discourse on an issue and expressed broad concern that substantial social injury is being caused by [those companies’] policies or practices.” In the past, it has guided Duke in divesting from conflict minerals and from companies that contributed to apartheid in South Africa.

Despite student support for the movement, the ACIR recommended against divestment in 2014.

“The advice was that there needed to be a lot more discussion,” ACIR Chair Lawrence Baxter said. 

After the decision, the Duke Climate Coalition took over the project. However, it initially focused on other environmental initiatives at Duke. The group successfully lobbied the University to use biogas instead of natural gas.

“Duke was in talks with and planning to build a combined heat and power plant on campus…and we worked extensively to try and stop that,” Miller said. 

After winning the power plant battle, the Climate Coalition turned back to divestment. This time, the force of a global movement was behind it. Entities such as the Republic of Ireland and the government of New York City have plans to pull billions of dollars from fossil fuel investments. Institutions such as Pitzer College have also committed to divestment. 

Luke Farrell, a student representative on the ACIR, attributed the success of the renewed push for divestment at Duke to the growth of the global movement. He also credited part of the success to student activism.

“The student work on campus has been remarkable,” Farrell said. 

He recalled that in 2014, the ACIR asked for more research on the impacts of divestment. After that, he said, students went out and did the work. 

"They researched really hard, they looked into these issues and they came back with a really comprehensive proposal," Farrell said.

Baxter also noted the importance of new research on manmade climate change.

“The scientific consensus has become almost unanimous that manmade fuel pollution is causing climate change and that we have to take action to stop that from causing more damage to the Earth,” Baxter said. 

Earlier this month, a United Nations report found that the world has only a few decades left to prevent the most catastrophic effects of manmade climate change.

The members of the Coalition wrote three memos, which helped push student groups to call for divestment. The day after the DSG Senate passed its resolution, the Climate Coalition met with the ACIR to discuss the possibility of the ACIR making a recommendation. The committee decided to postpone a decision until the spring, citing the need for additional discussion.

Miller said that he went into the meeting hoping that the Climate Coalition had met the bar for “substantive discourse.”

“This is every major student group saying we should do this—we thought that was substantive. They said they needed a bit more, so we’re going to work on defining what that means,” Miller said.

Miller said that this largely includes talking with members of Duke’s faculty and administration, which can be difficult as many faculty members don’t want to openly disagree with the University’s policy.

Richard Riddell, senior vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees, said that it is typical for the ACIR to ask for significant research and conversation before it reaches a decision.

“The bar is pretty high, because, as you can well imagine. You can have a [political] reason to ask Duke or anyone else to invest [in] or disinvest [from] particular causes,” Riddell said.

Baxter explained that the ACIR needs time to determine what form divestment should take.

“We’ve got to devise something that would actually be motivating to the Board of Trustees,” he said, noting that it is important to do more than merely make a symbolic statement. 

He added that Duke’s investment portfolio is different than those of other schools that have committed to divestment: it has few direct investments in fossil fuel companies, but it invests in mutual funds and derivatives that are linked to the fossil fuel industry. This complicates decisions about which companies and funds Duke can invest in.

If ACIR passes a resolution supporting divestment, it will be up to President Price to present a version of the recommendation to the Board of Trustees. The Board will then vote on whether to direct DUMAC to begin the process of divestment. 

Miller hopes that the committee will reach a decision by late February or early March so that President Vincent Price can make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees when it meets in May. He is both hopeful and nervous.

“My only fear is that we’ve been in the committee stage for a long time,” he said. “And in typical politics, legislation goes to die in committee—that’s the joke…That’s not something we can allow to happen.” 

In the meantime, the ACIR is holding an open forum on Nov. 6 at which students can voice their opinions on the matter. Miller stressed the importance of student attendance, and of the divestment movement in general. 

“For me it’s about the people,” he said. “Millions of people will die because of global warming, and, if Duke is complacent in that, that is a moral wrongdoing.”

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