The New York University student body has been imploring the university administration to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry since 2013. After over two years of back and forth, in 2015 the University Senate passed a resolution with over 80 percent support, proposing that, “going forward, no further investments in fossil fuel related companies should be made on behalf of NYU’s endowment.” Still, the board of trustees rejected the proposal in 2016 because it does “not support NYU using its endowment as a tool for simply making statements.” But is not investing in the fossil fuel industry really more of a statement than keeping over a hundred million dollars invested in that same industry?
Frankly, I think the latter is a much greater statement, and a political one at that. By investing in fossil fuels the university is supporting an industry whose work is a polarizing issue in politics today. Inaction is also a type of political statement. By remaining invested in the fossil fuel industry, NYU is taking the de-facto position of accepting a climate crisis.
So then, if making a statement isn’t really what’s stopping NYU from divesting, what is? You may think, well it’s probably too hard and impractical for the university to completely divest from fossil fuels, but that’s not really true. In fact, New York City has already gone fossil free with its investments stating, “they have a responsibility to divest from an industry that’s destroying our future, and reinvest in solutions to climate change.” NYC’s action leaves us wondering if universities should have the same responsibility to divest from an industry that is destroying our future, a future that their students will spend a majority of their lives living in. Other universities in NYC including Pratt, Columbia, and The New School have already fully or partially divested, taking on this responsibility to protect our future and revealing that divestment is in fact feasible.
Perhaps the reason why NYU has declined to divest lies with the board of trustees, where a number of members have direct ties to the fossil fuel industry. Joseph Steinberg is the current chair and former president of Leucadia National Corp., an American holding company that through its subsidiaries engages in mining and drilling services. Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak is a member of the UAE Supreme Petroleum Council and is the Group CEO of Mubadala Investment Company, which pursues oil and gas exploration in ten countries. Even the Chairman of NYU’s board, William R. Berkley, is the founder and chairman of the William R. Berkley Corporation whose subsidiaries, Berkley Oil & Gas and Berkley Offshore, insure the oil and gas industry and oil and gas exploration and production respectively. On top of it all, NYU’s President Andrew Hamilton received research funding from Exxon in 1987, leaving us wondering where his priorities lie today. Evidently, the group in charge of investing NYU’s endowment has a direct conflict of interest in divesting from fossil fuels. So then, can we really trust them to make a responsible decision on the issue?
After a resolution to decarbonize the university passed the university senate late last month, the topic of fossil fuel divestment will make its way to the Board of Trustees for the first time since it was rejected in 2016. Hopefully the board will accept the responsibility to protect the future of its student body and regain the trust of its most important stakeholders.
NYU is not alone in this predicament as many institutions, organizations, and companies face the same questions. It is time we hold institutions, individuals, organizations and companies alike accountable for their investments. Follow the link below to see if your organization, company, institution, or government has gone fossil fuel free and what you can do to help.
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