Student body presidents call on Ivy League to divest from fossil fuels

According to a letter signed by the student leaders on Earth Day, the resolution is an acknowledgement of the “severity of climate change.”

by Maya Kempf-Harris | 4/30/21 2:05am

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by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

The student body presidents at all eight Ivy League schools signed a resolution on Earth Day calling for “full divestment of endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry” by 2025. The document calls on institutions to publicly commit to this deadline by the end of the 2021 fiscal year.

As motivation, the resolution cites “the institutional power [the Ivy League] wield[s], the corruption and societal negligence displayed by fossil fuel companies, and the unparalleled havoc that the climate crisis promises to deliver.”

University of Pennsylvania junior and co-vice chair of the Student Sustainability Association at Penn Vyshnavi Kosigi said that the group created the resolution last year after being inspired by a similar resolution at Big Ten schools. The letter is intended to put pressure on individual Ivy League institutions to divest from fossil fuels, she said, and the release on Earth Day was a symbolic gesture.

Kosigi said that according to SSAP’s definition, no Ivy League school has achieved full divestment of fossil fuels, although some schools have taken steps to address sustainability concerns. The University of Pennsylvania announced a plan on April 7 to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and Columbia University and Cornell University have placed moratoriums on direct investments in the fossil fuel industry, according to Kosigi. 

The letter defines divestment as having “no investments (direct or indirect) in any of the top 200 fossil fuel companies by size of reserves,” “in any company that explores for, extracts, processes, refines or transmits coal, oil and gas,” or “in any utilities whose primary business function is to burn fossil fuels to produce electricity,” a definition that the letter credits to 350.org, a clean energy advocacy organization.

College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an email statement that “[t]he Dartmouth endowment has no direct holdings of any fossil fuel companies within its public portfolio,” and “Dartmouth has not made any investments in fossil fuels over the last two years, and we anticipate that this practice will continue.”

Kosigi said that the exact amount that Penn invests in fossil fuels is something that she can only estimate due to “intentional ambiguity” on behalf of the university.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reported in February 2020 that, according to the school’s president, Penn did not at the time hold any direct investments in coal or tar sand corporations and committed to not doing so going forward.

Kosigi said that while there are no current plans to continue collaborating between the eight student body presidents on this issue, she is hopeful that this project will put more public pressure on the Ivy League schools to divest.

University of Pennsylvania senior and Penn Undergraduate Assembly president Mercedes Owens was the first of the student body presidents to sign the letter. She said that the other seven Ivy League study body presidents were first contacted by SSAP in mid-February in order to have the resolution ready to be released on Earth Day. Owens noted that “it takes a long time across seven [student government] boards to gain approval, especially with the different processes that exist at all the schools for how presidents can endorse things.”

Owens said that having a letter endorsed by all eight institutions’ student body presidents is unusual.

“Over my past four years, this hasn’t happened,” Owens said. “We don’t really do anything that [involves] inter-Ivy [student assembly collaboration].”

She said that she had not yet received any follow-up about the letter from the Penn administration.

Dartmouth Student Assembly president Cait McGovern ’21 said that she thought the letter made “pretty powerful points.” After McGovern signed on, the SA Senate discussed the letter during a meeting on April 25 and voted to endorse its message.

McGovern said that, while the Ivy League student body presidents do communicate with one another and occasionally sign letters involving some combination of the institutions, it is unique to have a letter that is exclusive to the Ivy League, focused on the institutions themselves and endorsed by all eight Ivy League student body presidents.

“This letter was very purposeful in terms of what exactly can our eight schools come together to do to have a positive impact,” McGovern said. “It’s not just putting our names on a letter that is asking for something in the abstract, it’s asking for something very concrete and showing the evidence for why we are asking for it.”

McGovern added that she plans to discuss the letter in upcoming SA meetings with the College administration. SA also plans to promote the letter to students over social media in the coming days, according to McGovern.

Although Harvard University has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, Harvard junior and president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council Noah Harris believes that the institution’s promise will not address climate change quickly enough.

“From Harvard, we have had a long history of activism around divestment from fossil fuels, from private prisons…[to] a number of different things,” Harris said. “As the student body president who’s always trying to speak for the students and get behind their activism and lift their voices, I think it was kind of a no brainer [to sign].”

Princeton University junior and president of the Princeton Undergraduate Student Government Senate Christian Potter said that most of Princeton’s student government efforts focus on areas within their “sphere of control.” However, Potter chose to sign the letter after considering how divestment could “improve life… at Princeton.”

“It’s not commonplace at all for us to engage with long letters with signatories like this,” Potter said. “Our first response isn’t always to look for a national campaign; our first response is to think about the students here.”

Cornell senior and Cornell Student Assembly president Cat Huang said that Cornell’s Board of Trustees last year voted to institute a moratorium on new direct and indirect fossil fuel investments. Huang said that while the moratorium is a “success to some degree” for sustainability efforts, divestment would be a “preferable” goal.

“Instead of just pausing future investments, we want [Cornell] to actually take [their] money away from these companies that are literally bringing about the end of the world,” Huang said.

The Dartmouth Investment Office did not respond to requests for comment.

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