US Higher Education Lags on Divestment

Us Higher Ed Lags on Divestment

US higher education lags on divestment compared to the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, by percentage of institutions that have pledged to divest.

In late 2016 The Guardian published an article that pegged the value of managed assets slated for fossil fuel divestment at a whopping $5.2 trillion globally. Recently, UK’s Times Higher Education journal estimated that fossil fuel divestments in the higher education sector is total £80 billion ($100 billion USD), or roughly 5% of the total worldwide divestment portfolio. This same article notes that only 1% of US higher education institutions have committed to full or partial divestment: in the UK and Australia, percentages have risen to 35% and 14% respectively. (Numbers for the remainder of the British Commonwealth – New Zealand and Canada – are estimated to be 25% and 1%, respectively.)  The US and Canada are comparable: only the few, the bold, or the foresigntful universities have divested.

At face value, these numbers suggest that US campuses are seriously lagging in fossil fuel divestment compared to many of their counterparts. While this may be true in terms of the number of institutions, the dollar value of divestment in the US actually leads by a large margin: $80 billion versus $20 billion elsewhere. This discrepancy reflects the relative size of US university endowments versus those abroad, especially at prestigious universities such as Stanford, which has pledged to divest from coal. Moreover, there are thousands more 4-year colleges and universities in the United States than elsewhere.

So while at home the complete picture is not entirely bleak, the fact remains that the number of US institutions that have divested is quite low.  Contributing factors ranging from fiscal conservatism to the pro fossil fuel stance of the present US administration permit boards of regents and investment fund managers to continue business as usual.

It has been nearly 7 years since the first U.S. university (Hampshire College) divested; since then only a handful have followed suit. Is there anything on the horizon that might change this dynamic? One hopeful sign arrived this past May, when UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry T. Yang agreed to publicly endorse a $3 billion UC divestment from fossil fuels. If the UC system follows through, California will once again lead the way.  With or without universities, the divestment movement continues to grow at a rapid pace: the $5.2 trillion in divestment pledges represents a 100% increase over 2015. The hope is that the present level of higher education divestment from fossil fuels is just the tip of a much bigger divestment iceberg.

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