This article is featured in the 2023 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
Over the past few years, the fossil fuel divestment movement has swept universities nationwide. Developments over the last 10 years, from Swarthmore College’s student divestment initiatives to Stanford University’s divestment from coal demonstrate how students have pushed administrations to rethink their investments in fossil fuels.
On Oct. 8, 2021, the College formally announced its intention to divest its endowment from fossil fuel holdings, according to past reporting from The Dartmouth. The plan would allow all current holdings in the industry to expire and eventually eliminate any investments in the fossil fuel industry.
According to Sustainability Office intern and climate activist Maya Beauvineau ’26, divestment from fossil fuels is when universities stop using funds from endowments to invest in companies that profit from the fossil fuel industry.
“Divestment is like stopping our funding of the climate crisis itself,” she said.
However, according to Beauvineau, there has not been an “active conversation” about “holding Dartmouth accountable.” She added that the College has only announced a plan to divest, but does not provide a timeline.
“If you look online, [Dartmouth] only [has] one article on divestment specifically, and it’s very vague,” she said, referring to Dartmouth’s initial announcement of its intent to divest. “My demand would be that we have more transparency for how much money is currently invested in the fossil fuel industry and how long those investments are planned to continue before they expire.”
According to an email statement from College media relations specialist Jana Barnello, divestment is the third “area of impact” that is part of the College’s “comprehensive plan” to address the climate crisis — the other two areas being research and education and energy efficiency and resiliency. Dartmouth made the decision to divest in 2017, began to divest in 2020, and in 2021, investments in the fossil fuel industry comprised less than 5% of the endowment, Barnello wrote.
“Dartmouth has taken steps to ensure its endowment investments are made into funds working to support a timely global path to net-zero emissions,” Barnello wrote. “This includes using the endowment to invest in renewables, the broad energy transition and other innovative technologies.”
According to Barnello, the College is “working on updating” sustainability and energy goals, with a report on recommendations for “more ambitious” sustainability goals to come out in the fall of 2023. The College has also committed more than $50 million to updating current infrastructure, such as converting from steam hot water heating and cooling.
“Dartmouth’s overall goal is a low-carbon, zero-combustion campus,” she wrote.
Community campaigning for Dartmouth to divest came primarily from a student-founded organization called Divest Dartmouth, which was first formed in 2012.
According to former Divest Dartmouth member and current climate justice youth movement Sunrise Dartmouth member Lucy Rathgeb ’23, Divest Dartmouth’s founding mission was to “push the College” to divest, with their eventual goal to get the College to publicly announce that it was divesting.
“We just wanted there to be a public display from Dartmouth just saying that they would divest because fossil fuels aren’t the future that we want,” Rathgeb said.
According to former Divest Dartmouth member Edel Galgon ’22, divestment is a “tactic” to “get rid of some of the credence” of fossil fuel companies and raise awareness about their role in the climate crisis, as well as the “lack of regulations” in the industry.
“Divestment, or even renewable energy, is not an end all be all but … contains the potential to be a part of more transformational change,” Galgon said.
According to Beauvineau, a “chain reaction” occurred in 2021, when other colleges began to announce their plans to divest from fossil fuels.
“Dartmouth is starting to feel this pressure from exterior forces and [is] recognizing that it also needs to step up its game on climate action,” said Beauvineau. “That being said, because we are following other institutions, we are also not being a leader in the advancement of climate action.”
Among the other Ivy League universities, Brown University and Cornell University were the first to announce their intent of divestment in 2020. Columbia University and Harvard University made similar announcements in 2021, and Princeton University announced its intent of dissociating from oil and gas companies that year. Dissociation includes divestment, but also includes “refraining, to the greatest extent possible, from any relationships that involve a financial component with a particular company,” according to Princeton’s website.
Yale University released “more stringent principles” for investment and released a list of fossil fuel companies ineligible for investment in 2021. The University of Pennsylvania announced last year that it does not hold investments in 200 companies “whose reserves contain the largest amount of potential carbon emissions.”
Last year, Princeton released a list of 90 companies that it will dissociate from. None of these other institutions have released further updates since their initial announcements.
According to The Washington Post, in February 2022, students from Princeton and Yale, along with students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Vanderbilt University filed a legal complaint which aimed to compel their administrations for “complete divestment from all fossil fuels.” This legal action follows similar suits filed against Boston College, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins University, Marquette University, the University of New Mexico and the University of Wisconsin, the article added.
According to Rathgeb, divestment is a “smart financial decision” as renewable energies become cheaper and begin to replace fossil fuels as sources of energy. Rathgeb also added that fossil fuels also have “issues of labor.”
“The only [things] really keeping fossil fuel infrastructure from becoming obsolete [are] lobbying and vested interests that don’t necessarily reflect the reality of fossil fuels as a safe future investment,” Rathgeb said. “But … looking at the high incidents of accidents on oil rigs and coal mines, there’s a huge moral reason for switching to renewable energies.”
Addressing the importance of divestment for institutions of higher education, Beauvineau said that the values of universities are “indicative of where the country’s values are at,” specifically because they are meant to prepare the next generation for the workforce.
“By divesting from the fossil fuel industry, we [at Dartmouth] have the opportunity to indicate to the country and to the world that we do not support the climate crisis,” she said. “Instead, we have an opportunity with divestment to reinvest our money into local communities and sustainable efforts.”
Galgon added that divestment goes beyond simply addressing the climate crisis. Instead, it raises awareness of the “depth and extent of fossil fuel created misinformation,” challenges “individualistic approaches to social change” and introduces people to “anti-capitalistic and anti-colonial analysis.”
“My hope is that in addition to understanding how energy works, more students can really learn to imagine different types of social, political and economic worlds,” Galgon said.