Will Penn Give Up its Fossil Fuel Industry Assets to Appease Students?

Divest at Penn wants the school's $7.7 billion fossil fuel investment portfolio liquidated. Penn, though, has other plans.

Penn’s fossil fuel industry holdings are under attack this week after Divestment at Penn, a student group at the school, began putting pressure on the institution to sell off its financial assets related to the fuel industry.

The battle, not surprisingly, has been uphill:

With less than 10 core members, DAP has been noticeably slower to develop than other divestment campaigns at peer institutions, although students say the movement is gaining support throughout Penn’s environmental community. A Penn divestment petition hosted on 350.org, a global climate change website, has more than 250 signatures.

Turning those signatures into actionable causes, however, has been more difficult. Administrators, of course, see little benefit to divesting their fossil fuel portfolios, with Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli saying there are “other ways for the University to express concern about those issues short of divestment.”

In other words: no way, no how. That attitude is more or less the average at fellow Ivy League schools:

Other Ivy League administrators have agreed with Carnaroli, arguing that divesting from fossil fuels would be harmful to their endowments and, by extension, to the long-term growth of their institution. Most recently, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University’s president, wrote a letter to the Harvard community expressing doubt over the aims of a growing divestment movement at the university.

“I believe there are a number of more effective ways for Harvard both to address climate change and to enhance our commitment to sustainable investment,” Faust said.

Administrators and board members at Cornell University and Swarthmore College, two institutions that have had active divestment movements, have written similar letters in recent months.

Understandably, Penn’s not going to give up its $7.7 billion portfolio quietly simply because that’s what its students want. DAP members, though, remain vigilant:

For their part, DAP members say they are not discouraged by the University’s early stance on the divestment issue. Once the group finishes drafting its formal divestment proposal, it will likely bring the issue to several campus groups directly — in particular, University Council and the Undergraduate Assembly.

“Throughout history,” Clynes said, “I think every divestment campaign has probably been a bit of an uphill battle.”