Student coalition puts pressure on officials for portfolio transparency
THE SANTA CLARA
January 8, 2014
Throughout the Silicon Valley and the nation, Santa Clara is recognized as a pioneer in advocating for sustainable practices. Yet, the institution remains invested in energy companies whose pollutants are a substantial cause of global warming.
Last month, a panel of four individuals presented their professional views on the divestment debate at a discussion hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Students, faculty and members of the panel urged the university to pull any money invested in oil, coal and natural gas companies, also known as fossil fuel extraction companies. Chief Investment Officer John Kerrigan discussed the financial concerns of the university’s investment in the energy industry.
Prior Pushes for Change
In the fall of 2013, two campus environmental justice groups formed Fossil Free SCU. The coalition has been pushing Santa Clara to join the ranks of other American college campuses that have divested funds from fossil fuel extraction companies.
The group’s ultimate goal is to prompt Santa Clara to freeze any new investments in fossil fuel extraction companies.
They also aim to convince the administration to divest from any direct and commingled funds, including fossil fuel stock and corporate bonds, within five years. Commingled funds are portfolios consisting of sums of money from various investors.
Students in the coalition have met with Chief Investment Officer John Kerrigan six times in the past year, according to senior Lisa McMonagle, a student leader in the Fossil Free SCU movement.
“We still don’t know what stocks we hold in fossil fuels, which we are still really, really interested in because we want to look into the companies that we hold (stock in) and see what they are actually doing,” said McMonagle.
According to Kerrigan, “well less” than half of the 15 percent Santa Clara has invested in real assets — or real estate, commodities and energy investments — is in the energy sector.
The university still has not pledged to divest, nor has it disclosed the sum of its investments or which companies it has invested in.
At the panel, Kerrigan discussed the university’s endowment, which is the money the school makes from investing.
He read excerpts of the Investment Policy Statement, including a call “to respect the environment and preserve it for the well-being of future generations by not investing in corporations that have been cited for repeated or gross ecological violations.”
McMonagle represented Fossil Free SCU at the panel, stating that the coalition stemmed from a fossil free divestment movement that was started in 2012 by the organization 350.org.
“(Fossil fuel extraction) companies continue to put enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere without paying any price,” McMonagle said. “We, as young people, are going to be the ones to pay for it.”
Senior Krishan Allen, another panel member, said divesting from fossil fuel companies would not immediately harm the corporations because other businesses would buy up that stock.
Allen is one of three recipients of the Hackworth Fellowship. He was awarded a $2,666 stipend to create a guide for students which covers various topics on ethics and finance, including divestment.
“I think it’s tough to ask a huge endowment to remove investments from (commingled funds),” said Allen in an interview. “Ethically, it makes sense in a very obvious manner, but it is more complex than you think.”
According to Allen, commingled funds are “popular within institutions” because they come with huge tax benefits. Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the fourth panelist, said Santa Clara previously divested from tobacco in the ’90s due to ethical concerns, and there is “always a struggle on the impact of divestment.”
He urged the university “to be a part of the rising crescendo of (fossil fuel) divestment,” noting that Stanford divested its direct funds in coal energy this past May.
Following the presentations, the forum opened up for the panel to voice their personal opinions and debate the issue with the attending faculty and students. Kerrigan said that those who support divestment are hypocritical because consumers “technically” burn fossil fuels through driving cars, flying on planes and taking public transportation.
“I think demonizing and shaming a particular asset class in the investment world, the energy asset class, is kind of silly, given humankind, meaning you and I, benefit tremendously from this asset class,” Kerrigan said.
A member of the audience rebutted Kerrigan’s declaration, saying the movement is a call to find alternative energy and not to demonize the fossil fuel industry. She said the problem is that energy is solely consumed from fossil fuels because it is “our only choice” of energy.
“Poor oil companies,” said Hanson mockingly. “You know, I want to say that there are other ways they might peruse their business. (There is) a lot of interest in how can we get oil companies to transfer more of their efforts into a variety of clean fuels. That’s not demonizing.”
Another audience member asked McMonagle about the effects climate change would have on the human population if the average global temperature were to rise above 2 degrees Celsius.
McMonagle said sea levels would rise and flood out many island nations. Ocean acidification would kill off marine species, impacting developing nations that rely heavily on the fishing industry for their main source of food. She also said climate change-related storms, such as Hurricane Sandy, would develop more frequently.
According to McMonagle, unstoppable negative feedback loops, such as ice melting in the tundra, would occur once “we pass that 2 degree threshold.” Methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, is trapped below the tundra. As the tundra ice continues to melt, more methane will be released, speeding up the process of global warming, she added.
A member of the audience asked Kerrigan why the university is not willing to potentially give up money in order to maintain the Santa Clara’s Jesuit mission to build a just and sustainable world.
“We are taking a hit today in order to maintain the mission to the extent that we have,” said Kerrigan.
However, when pressed by McMonagle, Kerrigan did not provide the audience with concrete examples of how the Investment Office specifically abides by the portion of the Investment Policy Statement on socially responsible investing to preserve the environment for the well-being of future generations.
“One of the things we have talked about is buying a fossil free index for the portfolio, just for its own sake,” said Kerrigan.
Why Transparency is Key
Despite recent controversy over fossil fuel divestment, Santa Clara won the 2014 Acterra Award for Sustainability, an honor presented annually to one business in the Bay Area that portrays “exemplary environmental leadership.”This year, Santa Clara beat out finalists including Google and SunPower Corporation.
In addition, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, a transparent, self-reporting framework for universities to measure sustainability performance, gave Santa Clara a gold rating, the highest any university has received.
Santa Clara scored exceptionally well in categories such as sustainable curriculum and sustainable campus engagement.
However, this year, the university only received a 0.76 out of 7 possible points for the investment category of sustainable performance in the rating system.
“One of our weakest areas in STARS right now is in our endowment,” said John Farnsworth, senior lecturer in the Environmental Studies and Sciences Department. “It’s not transparent. We lose points for that.”
Farnsworth is a part of a small group of faculty members who sent a letter to the faculty senate the first week of November to spark conversation about divesting and to help lead the Fossil Free SCU movement.
Kerrigan, however, does not agree with STARS’ methodology of “placing a high premium on transparency” in rating the sustainability of higher education institutes’ investment portfolios.
“If we were to publish our holdings it would be like, you know, Velcro for controversy,” he said at last month’s debate. “And frankly our primary job is to invest for returns, not to spend our lives arguing.”
As the aftermath of the debate lingers on campus, McMonagle is eager to take further action in winter quarter.
Contact Mallory Miller at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.