'Jumping for a moving bar': A history of the push for fossil fuel divestment at Duke

Thirty-five years ago, a group of 50 students gathered outside the Allen Building, chanting, “Duke, Duke, we can’t hide. We know we support apartheid. Divest now.” 

They demanded that Duke divest its holdings operating in apartheid South Africa. By May 1986, after campouts and class strikes, the Duke Board of Trustees, like those at hundreds of universities across the country, relented. 

The combined divestments fueled international pressure, contributing to the racist South African regime’s ultimate collapse. College students, by leveraging their schools’ financial and social power, had helped drive real change.   

In 2014, students once again called on Duke to sell holdings, this time in fossil fuel corporations that they condemned for funnelling billions of dollars into killing climate change legislation, polarizing the public and spreading disinformation. Duke declined. 

Two years ago, Duke students made another push for fossil fuel divestment. But after thousands of petition signatures, dozens of events, 11 Chronicle op-eds, 96 pages of memos and a unanimous Duke Student Government Senate resolution, Duke refused to commit to divestment. (Both authors of this piece attended meetings of the Duke Climate Coalition, a pro-divestment group, during this time period, and one wrote an op-ed in The Chronicle supporting divestment.)

We spoke to student divestment leaders and administrators to learn from their experience. Students told us a story about bureaucratic inertia, delay and what they consider a battle for the future of our fragile planet. Administrators, however, argue that divestment would accomplish nothing because Duke’s fossil fuel holdings are very small.

What follows is the history of the push for fossil fuel divestment at Duke, and of the clashing perspectives that have prevented it from happening.

2012: Doing the math

It was November 2012. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben had booked a talk at Duke. His mission: convince the campus and the world to “do the math” on climate change, then mobilize to avert global catastrophe.  

The math in question first appeared that summer in a viral front-page Rolling Stone article, where McKibben broke down the climate crisis in three numbers: two, 565 and 2,795. Two degrees Celsius, the conservative consensus for the rise in global temperatures beyond which consequences like extreme weather, rising seas and food shortages threaten civilization itself; 565 billion tons, the carbon dioxide we can burn and stay within that two-degree limit; 2,795 billion tons, the weight of known fossil fuel reserves. If you do the math, you will realize we have to keep 80% of known reserves in the ground. 

Oil companies are betting against this goal, and they possess staggering geopolitical power. In 2011, oil producers spent $150 million lobbying American legislators against climate action and received $20 billion in direct federal subsidies from the United States alone. So McKibben, who has covered the ecological crisis since the 1980s, set out to take on Goliath with a new strategy—divestment. 

In theory, divestment is simple: You sell any stock you or your company holds in the top 200 fossil fuel producers, then make a public commitment never to reinvest. A 2013 Carbon Tracker study showed that over the next decade, producers will spend up to $6.74 trillion tapping fossil fuel reserves that would be “unburnable” under the two-degree goal. By halting money flows from banks, governments and institutions like universities, divestment sends a market signal for clean energy transition.

Divestment may also make financial sense, with the energy sector underperforming the general market. Expensive fossil infrastructure risks becoming “stranded” as climate policies worldwide reduce demand and prioritize cleaner alternatives. And divestment proponents argue it helps fight the far-ranging consequences of climate collapse, which include novel diseases, climate migration and food insecurity, among many others

2012 and 2013: A Fringe Cause

Corrie Hannah, Nicholas School ‘18, got on board. In 2012, she was a first-semester Ph.D. candidate, researching Tajikistan’s water governance and trying to get involved on campus. McKibben, after wrapping up his speaking tour, dispatched a representative to recruit student divestment leaders. Hannah attended an interest meeting on campus, and Divest Duke was born. 

In the beginning, it was slow going. The 10-to-15-person team relied heavily on the playbook (both figurative and literal—after we spoke on the phone, Hannah sent us a 34-page Duke Partnership for Service handbook on “How to Advocate for Investment Responsibility at Duke”) of previous divestment movements, which included the South Africa protests of the 1980s, a successful push to divest from Sudan in 2007 and Duke’s 2012 commitment to shareholder advocacy against conflict minerals. 

Divest Duke collected around 100 petition signatures, put flyers on cars during basketball games and worked for the revival of the Advisory Council on Investment Responsibility, which then-President Richard Brodhead eventually reinstated in December 2013. 

In Spring 2013, Divest Duke drew up a proposal informed by the University’s broader environmental policy—since 2007, Duke has claimed to be on track for carbon neutrality by 2024, though this plan has notable caveats—and marched into Brodhead’s office hours. 

“And they were like, ‘Well, that’s nice, but we can’t do anything,’” Hannah recalled.

They had hoped to secure Brodhead as an early ally, but Hannah said he talked about secret, not-to-be-tampered-with investment algorithms and said he would need more evidence to divest.  

“I just felt like he was in this ivory tower that had no connection to the students at all,” she said. Brodhead did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Divestment, in those early days, was sometimes a hard sell even to fellow environmentalists. Laughing, Hannah told us how one meeting with an animal conservation club went rapidly south. 

“I mean, we were not popular,” she said.

In Fall 2013, as her doctoral coursework intensified, Hannah took a step back from Divest Duke, but other Blue Devils flocked to the cause. 

2013 to 2015: "It wasn't enough"

One of those recruits was then-doctoral candidate Danica Shaffer-Smith, Nicholas School ‘18. Like Hannah, Shaffer-Smith joined Divest Duke for its 2012 beginnings. Her work centered on a ferocious research and awareness campaign spanning several months in Fall 2013. 

Divest Duke scheduled a meeting with ACIR for December 2013. In the semester leading up to the meeting, they held an official campus launch—expanding their reach beyond the Nicholas School of the Environment—and began building student support with the help of a Green Corps organizer. 

They protested the Keystone XL pipeline in front of Perkins Library. They persuaded alumni to call Brodhead’s office hundreds of times. They tabled for weeks, collecting 3,457 signatures on a divestment petition. 

A scroll through the now-dormant Divest Duke Facebook page reveals dozens of striking portraits. One depicts a group of stone-faced students lined up in front of the Chapel, holding a sign with the phrase “it’s time to end this toxic relationship” scrawled in red and black. Other photos show students standing on Abele Quad, on the Marketplace steps, in the Bryan Center, signs aloft or arms linked with Durham community members. 

The divestment campaign earned national attention, and student leaders, though unable to access data proprietary to Duke Management Company (DUMAC)—the corporation managing Duke’s investments—made real investigative progress. Shaffer-Smith estimates the core team devoted 50 hours per week to drafting a proposal for ACIR.

“It was comparable to trying to prepare to meet with the Senate,” she recalls. 

And it wasn’t enough. Divest Duke met with ACIR once in December 2013, again in April 2014 and twice in October 2014 before ACIR, then led by James Cox, Brainerd Currie professor of law, published its November 2014 Report on Fossil Fuels, which stated there was “a lack of clarity that divestment will have the desired impact.” 

“I feel like we did everything we were asked,” Shaffer-Smith said. “And it wasn’t enough, and we didn’t know what would be enough for the administration.”  

She described a tantalizing dance between students and administrators. Just when leaders thought they had a handle on ACIR’s investment criteria, they would be met with a new counterargument, which, given their limited resources and data access, they couldn’t always parry. 

“It was like jumping for a moving bar without having any sense of where it was,” she said. 

Cox did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Throughout, Shaffer-Smith said she and the rest of the Divest Duke team felt exploited by administrators unwilling to share in the research work. 

“It wasn’t a collaborative effort, though we would have loved for it to be,” she said. 

2015 and 2016: Forging ahead

Though discouraged, the Divest Duke leaders forged on, writing administrators “divestment valentines” and hosting faculty panels on climate policy. In the fall of 2015, they merged with organizers pressuring Duke to use corporate shareholder power to push for renewable energy, forming the Duke Climate Coalition. 

Rachel Weber, Trinity ‘16, had become involved that spring and led divestment efforts until her graduation. She remembered coalition-building with organizations like the Black Student Alliance, hosting a staged wedding between Duke and fossil fuels and attracting local reporters to ACIR open forums—but more than anything she recalled how working on divestment felt.

“[Administrators] make it purposely really hard to get the information that you need to do your job right, and you spend so much time wading through the bullshit of how that works just to uncover the information that you need,” she said.

By her senior year, she was burned out. 

2017 to 2019: A New Hope

Following Weber’s graduation, divestment organizing lay dormant for about a year until Seaver Wang, Nicholas School ‘19, and Ethan Miller, Trinity ‘19, took up the mantle. 

According to Weber and Miller, Cox had staunchly opposed divestment, but his replacement as ACIR chair, Lawrence Baxter, David T. Zhang professor of the practice of law, shared concerns about the climate crisis. 

When we interviewed him, Baxter said that at the time he asked DCC to put together research on divestment because ACIR had “no resources” to work with. So Wang and Miller jumped through the hoops, drafting four research-heavy memos to address ACIR’s concerns.

ACIR’s 2014 report had argued divestment would serve a primarily symbolic function, claiming that divesting Duke’s minimal direct holdings would have little impact on the global market. In their 2018 response, DCC highlighted the collective momentum of divesting universities, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds. The students also proposed partial divestment from coal and oil sands, two industries notorious for heavy pollution and low profit margins.

In addition, the 2014 ACIR report claimed “sufficient discourse on the topic” had not occurred, and that Duke should offer companies “reasonable opportunity to alter [their] activities.” In response, DCC argued that fossil fuel corporations have undermined honest discourse for decades by funding misinformation. After citing several examples of coordinated industry attacks on climate science, the students argued that “such actions suggest that fossil fuel corporations are unlikely to debate climate policy in good faith, and that any efforts by Duke University to promote positive change via shareholder advocacy will likely fail to produce meaningful results.”

In April 2018, DCC met with ACIR, then responded to the committee’s concerns and drafted a formal divestment resolution. They won allies across campus: DCC collaborated with the Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators on a 40-page report summarizing the financial case for divestment, the DSG Senate voted unanimously to call for divestment and a majority of the Graduate and Professional Student Council supported the measure. Students also met with the Executive Committee of the Academic Council to discuss a faculty resolution backing divestment. Expecting support from ACIR, DCC leaders decided to delay the faculty vote so that any Academic Council decision could align with a pro-divestment ACIR recommendation. 

DCC also nominated three members to join the Fossil Fuel Investment (FFI) ACIR subcommittee, allowing them to see DUMAC’s proprietary investment data after signing nondisclosure agreements. Wang and Miller’s hope was that by bolstering community support with their hundreds of research hours, they could make divestment an irresistible position. 

ACIR rejected the DCC resolution more than a year later, in May 2019. The report both reiterated existing talking points and added new objections. Divestment, ACIR argued, would constitute “polarizing” hypocrisy and set an “ambiguous precedent.” The report stated that “the [FFI] Subcommittee concluded that divestment would not be an effective contribution to the reduction of [greenhouse gas emissions]. Accordingly, the Subcommittee recommended, and the ACIR unanimously agreed, against a mandate to DUMAC to divest.”  

After thousands of hours of activist work and support from two generations of students, every ACIR member had voted to oppose divestment. But why did the FFI subcommittee—which included DCC’s leaders—recommend against divestment? 

Divestment chart.png

2018 and 2019: Inside ACIR

We asked several students involved in the process why they think the divestment push failed. Their immediate answer: delays. Each argued that the process was glacially slow—ACIR often took weeks to respond to divestment leaders, and meetings, while cordial, rarely meaningfully moved the needle. Although the formal divestment effort began in Spring 2018, ACIR rejected the resolution a full year later, days after Miller and Wang graduated. 

“It felt like we were running in place,” Wang recalled, “doing a lot of work with not a lot of return.” 

In addition, divestment proposals involved a heavy research burden which, Miller told us, only students were expected to shoulder. Senior Saheel Chodavadia, who was 2018-19 DSG vice president for academic affairs and served a term on ACIR, said it was “no one’s individual prerogative within admin to do divestment research, so it never got done.” Chodavadia told us that he thinks only a professional firm could research divestment with adequate detail. 

ACIR’s chair, Baxter, was a consistent proponent of responsible investing, but when it came to fossil fuels, he and DCC were at an impasse. 

“They don’t seem to engage with our research,” Miller said of ACIR. He added that the benchmarks administrators gave students were highly subjective.  

Student members of the FFI subcommittee did access proprietary information. “[DUMAC] reports were, however, arranged in a way which I believe misrepresented Duke’s environmentally responsible investments and limited what we could see with regards to irresponsible investments,” Miller said. “With more time, I think we could have better understood what was truly going on.” 

In an email, Baxter called Miller’s comments “puzzling” and questioned whether he “really understood the process.” 

Miller and Wang both said the expectation of opposition from upper administration and the Board of Trustees, both of which would be involved in the divestment process, also shaped the conversation within ACIR. Any ACIR recommendation to divest would be sent to President Vincent Price, and if he accepted the recommendation, he would then call for a Board vote. If the Board also approved the measure, DUMAC would sell the assets in question.

Miller stated that he “knew for a fact that Price was against divestment” after meeting with Price directly in office hours and speaking to him multiple times while walking across campus. 

Miller suspected that part of the reason ACIR rejected divestment was that they “didn’t want to recommend something they knew had no chance of making it past Price.” 

Baxter said the claim that the administration exerted anti-divestment pressure was “unfounded.” However, he also said both he and Cox believed the trustees opposed divestment—while neither heard this directly from a board member, it was accepted as “the scuttlebutt behind the scenes,” as Baxter put it. 

“It’s very unlikely that boards of trustees or presidents at Duke, or anywhere else, side with divestment, particularly one as complicated as this,” Richard Riddell, senior vice president and secretary to the Board of Trustees, said when asked whether Price or the trustees opposed divestment.

Price did not directly respond to a request for comment, but Riddell said Price had authorized him to speak on his behalf. 

Multiple trustees have filled prominent positions linked to oil and gas interests. Ralph Eads III, Trinity ‘81, has variously served as executive vice president for El Paso Energy Corp., once the largest natural gas pipeline company in North America; president of oil and gas advisory firm Randall & Dewey and; currently, vice chairman for Jefferies LLC, an investment bank and financial services company. 

Robert R. Penn, Trinity ‘74, leads Penn Resources Inc., Penn Brothers Inc. and Rock Island Resource Company Inc. All three are oil and gas companies. Jeffrey Ubben, Trinity ‘83, CEO of ValueAct Capital, told CNBC that fossil fuel companies can be “part of the solution” to climate change, defending his decision to invest in BP. 

Asked whether it would be appropriate for trustees with ties to oil interests to vote on divestment, Riddell said that “the trustees take a pledge to be fiduciaries for the university, and I think that’s what they focus on.” 

Fearful that this administrative opposition would cause their work to go to waste, student divestment leaders settled for alternative suggestions, including $1 million in seed money for the Duke Impact Investment Group; a proposal to study an internal carbon price on investments; and funding for a Social Choice Fund established in 2013 that, according to Baxter, remains empty.

In a response to ACIR’s recommendation against divestment, Price offered Duke Impact Investment Group $100,000 and committed the University to better advertising the Social Choice Fund. He rejected the internal carbon price. 

The process left Wang and Miller frustrated. Slippery benchmarks, complex financial data, opposition from above and a crushing research workload—navigating this gauntlet seemed impossible. 

The Administrative Perspective 

Baxter became involved in divestment proceedings when he accepted the ACIR chairmanship in 2018. He has since extended his term by a year to spearhead the committee’s reorganization. As a faculty member, he designed and taught a seminar on climate change and markets. He told us he opposes fossil fuel divestment but believes financial incentives can prompt environmental progress. 

Baxter outlined Duke’s complicated investment portfolio, which includes direct holdings, funds managed by third parties and derivatives. 

He said ACIR long ago decided that the best tool for assessing Duke’s direct fossil holdings was the Carbon Underground 200, a list of the 200 largest oil, gas and coal companies. Following a third-party fund’s dissolution, the endowment temporarily held direct stock in one of these firms, but Baxter said he believes DUMAC liquidated this investment during the FFI subcommittee’s tenure. 

Assuming DUMAC did liquidate the Carbon Underground 200 stock, divestment activists’ target would shift to Duke’s holdings in funds managed by third parties. Baxter said that DUMAC claims to prioritize funds balancing environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria with strong returns, but that Duke ultimately has limited control over decisions made by fund managers. 

Duke also has investments in derivatives, essentially bets on the direction of the market. Though he could not disclose the size of these investments, Baxter assured us they were “extremely small and constantly changing.” 

Baxter argued that self-congratulatory divestment, with so little at stake, would be hypocritical. When we asked him if that meant that other universities, pension funds and sovereign wealth funds were hypocritical, he said yes.

“There’s a lot of grandstanding,” he told us. “Others got a lot of publicity, but if Duke did it we’d really feel ashamed of ourselves.” 

In addition, Baxter mentioned that several faculty members, especially environmental economists, opposed divestment because it would be “polarizing.” Without consensus among faculty experts, it was difficult to argue that fossil fuel divestment was a clear-cut issue.  

Baxter told us he was impressed by student activists’ work and “embarrassed” by how slowly ACIR moves. The council, he said, is inadequately equipped for a morally complex, research-heavy issue like fossil fuel divestment. 

“We are an anachronism. We were created in a time right after apartheid,” he said.

Like Baxter, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, the official liaison between DUMAC and the Board of Trustees, said he is “not a fan of symbolic divestment,” citing similar fears about moral hypocrisy. He also revealed that the Board has never officially discussed fossil fuel divestment; his focus has remained “tangible efforts,” like renewable energy projects in North and South Carolina, to offset campus emissions. 

2019 and 2020: Falling Action

Throughout the past year, Baxter and Riddell have collaborated on major revisions to ACIR’s charter. Baxter wants to empower the council to educate students about investment responsibility and Duke’s endowment structure, but he acknowledges even this role would involve significant effort for ACIR’s volunteer members. 

“We need resources,” he said. 

A proposed update to the Board of Trustees’ guidelines for investment responsibility, which Riddell sent to the DCC’s Executive Committee in January, now includes this line: “As part of Duke University, DUMAC upholds Duke’s institutional values and is committed to responsible investing, taking into account issues of integrity, quality, environmental impact, ethics, and governance.” 

But the document, a copy of which was sent to us by DCC member Robby Phillips, a sophomore, also states that “just as the university does not have a particular social or political agenda, neither do its investment decisions.” 

When ACIR had finalized the draft, Riddell made rounds to student environmental organizations to get feedback. He met with DCC in late January. (The authors of this piece were present.) Phillips said he was disappointed by the administration’s position. 

“We were really confused by the argument that [Duke’s fossil fuel investment] is not enough money to make [divestment] worth it, but yet they were still unwilling to divest it,” Phillips said. 

He admitted that the climate crisis is considered political but argued that its politicization has occurred at the hands of fossil fuel companies, for their benefit. 

Although Riddell said divestment efforts had garnered insufficient support from the Duke community, Phillips said DCC members were unable to pin down what sufficient community support would look like. 

When we asked Riddell for his definition of adequate support, referencing the volume of signatures Divest Duke collected in 2014, he said that he hadn’t seen the petition. He added that petitions often lack credibility because people may sign them without reading them. 

“It’s just not an issue that’s completely cutting over the finish line,” he said, citing apartheid and conflict minerals as clearer-cut divestment instances with broader popularity. 

Following the meeting, Phillips said, he and other DCC members felt discouraged. Some were enthusiastic about building faculty and student support, while others argued divestment campaigns would never succeed. 

“During that meeting, the magnitude of the issue struck me, because the climate crisis as a whole is such a huge, complicated issue, and the easiest first step is divestment,” Phillips said. “Hearing such pushback from a school like Duke, which has ample resources and, at least from the outside, has made all these commitments to carbon neutrality and sustainability, made me feel discouraged about the future.”

The future of divestment

As past efforts have shown, petitions, op-eds, memos and even the escalating impact of climate change don’t guarantee victory for divestment campaigners. Baxter said the best-case divestment pipeline requires at least one to two years. Between forums, reports and the cycle of polite but inconsequential meetings, Duke’s bureaucratic hurdles easily outlast any single generation of student leadership. 

Students’ hard-won momentum is also fragile. The chaos and overcommitment endemic to college life whittle down even the most robust movements. Leaders who see little progress can burn out.

College administrators across the country, including at Duke, invoke continued dependence on fossil fuels as a reason for investment in them. Harvard’s President Lawrence Bacow said that the University would be “hypocritical” for trying to divest industry holdings while still relying on fossil fuel products, and Columbia University’s responsible investing committee evaded divestment by arguing that society relies on fossil fuels “in every aspect of our lives.” Columbia eventually divested from thermal coal.

But nationally, the drumbeat for divestment continues to grow louder. In the past year, the student governments of Big Ten universities, representing over 500,000 students, unanimously called for divestment, as did an overwhelming majority of Harvard University faculty. This February, Georgetown University committed to divest its fossil fuel holdings.

Whether or not institutions opt to divest, the decisions they make will have impacts close to home. 

Shaffer-Smith, who studied wetland hydrology for six years at Duke, said that without climate change, “You wouldn’t get a Hurricane Harvey or Florence”—two catastrophic storms that narrowly missed campus. 

“Duke itself is at risk because of climate change,” Shaffer-Smith said. “Our community is at risk.” 

Correction: This article has been updated to remove a sentence incorrectly stating that Bain Capital, which trustee Stephen Pagliuca co-chairs, advises the oil and gas industries. The Chronicle regrets the error. 

Editor’s Note: Margot Armbruster, one of the authors of this piece, is also an opinion managing editor for The Chronicle.

Margot Armbruster profile
Margot Armbruster

Margot Armbruster is a Trinity senior and opinion editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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