The University of California is the latest major university to find itself arguing over whether or not divestment from fossil fuels is a worthwhile idea. Is it? Yes. But it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy, either way.
Colleges and universities, being home to lots of idealistic/ ignorant young people, often divest themselves of investments in ethically troublesome areas, to make a point. Divestment tends to have a financial cost. Some people say it is dumb to do things that could cost a university endowment money. Other people say that colleges should embody the ideals they purport to be imparting upon young people. Some people say that college endowments are too small to make a meaningful difference in the issues. That particular objection is rather hollow. By that standard, only Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg have any ethical responsibilities at all. The rest of us don't have enough money to make a difference. Invest in all the guns, tobacco, and dirty coal you want!
Earlier this year, Stanford decided to divest from coal stocks. This made them look very bold and brave, since it followed Harvard's rather cowardly announcement last year that they would not be divesting from fossil fuels in any manner. (Harvard's decision seemed to be an honest one philosophically, but their argument that their $33 billion can be invested nonpolitically was wishful thinking.) Now, UC is having its own debate over the same issue. A pitched back-and-forth struggle! The Wall Street Journal reports:
The group—charged with advising the university's investment committee—had planned to suggest that the state system join Harvard University, Yale University and Brown University in holding fast against activist calls to dump their fossil-fuel investments, said people familiar with the discussions.
But in an hourlong meeting Tuesday, several task-force members successfully argued for preserving the option of divestment. The task force subsequently removed from its recommendation to an investment committee language stating that selling those investments "would not meaningfully impact climate change," these people added.
Good for these anonymous task-force members for trying to avoid the adoption of an insane standard of morality. What we are witnessing is large universities—which are run like corporations—attempting to hide from ethics by waving a fig leaf of pragmatism. Think about the implications of saying, "We have no obligation to be ethical in our investments unless our divestment alone all by itself would meaningfully impact [HUGE GLOBAL ISSUE]." That is a way to escape responsibility for almost anything. (The meaning of "meaningfully impact" can be adjusted at will to ensure that it always remains out of reach, so nothing ever needs to be done.) That is not the lesson that schools are supposed to be teaching to their students. Students themselves rarely have enough money or power to "meaningfully impact" issues with their wallets—and yet student movements have had a great deal of meaningful impact on countless issues across the world for centuries.
A university cannot march in the street waving a sign. A university can, however, set an example by letting its money talk. One school divesting may not "meaningfully impact" an oil company. But 1,000 schools divesting might. We all play a part. Universities should not be in such a rush to act like corporations only concerned about their annual returns.