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A sharply divided University of Utah Academic Senate is calling on the school to rid its investment portfolios of equities associated with fossil fuels.
The resolution adopted Monday was hailed by some as a historic victory for the fight against global warming and a move toward opening an overdue discussion about how to align the university's investments with its mission and commitments to sustainability.
"To me, that is so inspiring. They understand these investments are not compatible with what this university stands for," said U. senior Matthew Kirkegaard, who helped lead a 2012 petition drive encouraging President David Pershing to unhook the U. endowment from fossil fuels.
But others panned the resolution as a merely symbolic gesture that is long on political grandstanding and short on actually doing anything to curb the pollution blamed for turning the Earth's atmosphere into a greenhouse.
Institutions around the nation and the world are weighing whether investments in coal, oil and gas are consistent with their missions and many are concluding that divesting is warranted. But such a debate comes with a political cost for the University of Utah, a flagship school in a state that actively promotes oil and gas development, coal mining and the export of its coal across the Pacific.
Unlike Utah lawmakers, most, if not all, of their U. counterparts in the Academic Senate agree greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are driving much of the globe's climate crisis and universities should do what they can to curb carbon dioxide emissions.
A campus disagreement persisted over tactics, however, with critics arguing divestment is a divisive gesture that could undermine the U.'s ability to carry out research that could lead to solutions.
"It is targeting an industry that supplies a valuable commodity, affordable energy, which is vital for our economy and quality of life. Has this industry refused to invest in alternative energy and other clean technologies? Not at all," argued Ed Trujillo, an associate professor of chemical engineering.
He noted the oil and gas industry has invested billions in emerging technologies, including $42 billion between 2000 and 2007 on processes that address greenhouse gas emissions. Collaboration is a better way to tackle climate change, he said.
"It is going to be solved by the creative research conducted on campuses that are partially supported by fossil fuel industry. The problem is going to be solved by graduating talented engineers and scientists who will come up with new and better ways of producing the energy we need as a nation that is sustainable, economical and less harmful to our environment while at the same time chang[ing] the corporate philosophy," Trujillo said.
Outside divestment backers, like Ryan Pleune of 350.org, countered that divestment carries little financial cost and should not affect industry's willingness to explore alternative energy sources.
The resolution, which eked through on a 44-40 vote after an initial count resulted in a tie, calls on U. administrators to "strategically" divest over five years.
"Continued investment in the fossil fuel industry is risky business and incongruent with climate science and incongruent with the University's education, sustainability and leadership values. Divestment is our moral, ethical and fiduciary responsibility," the resolution states. "We have no right to invest in the destruction of the climate our students will inherit."
The resolution acts as a recommendation to the U. trustees, but under the concept of shared governance, the senate resolution should carry substantial weight. About 7 percent of the U.'s $700 million endowment pool is invested in the energy sector, according to a report released last year by an ad hoc senate committee. The university controls another $1.3 billion in other investments that would be subject to the resolution.
"I recognize there is more work we need to do on campus so people understand what divestment means and what it can mean for campus," said librarian Joan Gregory, who helped write the resolution. "The university can figure it out. There's so many possibilities. Our colleagues took a stand. There is a certain amount of hope there. Transformation is possible. It was symbolic but also meaningful."
Activists last fall presented the Natural History Museum of Utah, a division of the U., with a divestment petition carrying 55,000 signatures. The museum has its own endowment, which is included in the U.'s investments.
And the U. is not the only Utah institution grappling with the issue. Student movements are afoot at Weber State University and Westminster College, where some graduating students wore divestment badges at last week's commencement.
Westminster President Stephen Morgan acknowledged divestment is on his radar. But dropping fossil fuel investments from his school's $70 million endowment pool is not a simple matter, he said, and it could contradict the wishes of college donors.
"We are listed as one of the greenest colleges in the U.S. Are we walking the talk?" said Morgan, who served as the school's development chief before becoming president last year. Administrators also have a fiduciary duty to ensure endowments grow. If they strip fossil fuel companies from investment vehicles, they might find returns are not as good and donors might be less willing to entrust their gifts to the school as a result, he said.
But according to one U. divestment supporter, emeritus communications professor David Jabusch, Morgan might not have much to worry about. Green investment funds have distinguished themselves in the marketplace, he argued during Monday's debate.
"Divesting is an extraordinarily good investment. One reason is fossil fuels are on their way out. What is going to drive the economy of the 21st century is anything but fossil fuels. They are on decline," Jabusch said.
In a related vote, the senate passed by a wider margin another resolution that establishes a Socially Responsible and Environmentally Sustainable Investment Advisory Committee. It also urges the U. "to initiate a transition towards climate responsible investment opportunities. These include renewable energy, energy conservation, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, sustainability, as well as research and development in these areas."
Monday's senate votes came after more than a year of discussion and hearings on the subject of "responsible investing," but the conversation began with student activism.
"We want to make sure the university stands for climate justice," said Kirkegaard, who graduates this week with a degree in political science and environmental studies and departs for England on a Fulbright scholarship. "This is their [students'] endowment. If they have no say in the investments that will be driving their future, that is an injustice."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.