This is an archived article that was published on in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Reports that University of Utah's Academic Senate voted to divest from fossil fuel investments have missed the point that this split vote reflects the larger societal challenge.

The arguments for and against divestment are many, and a record of those arguments raised in the recent dialogue at U. is available at Both the pro-divestment and non-divestment camps are motivated by the gulf between currently planned emissions reductions relative to what scientists say are needed to avoid serious climate impacts. However, the two camps disagree strongly on whether divestment is a useful institutional response to climate change.

The initial vote on the divestment resolution was split 40-40, with six abstentions. A recount yielded a slight majority 44-40 in favor of divestment, as four abstainers switched. The Academic Senate has no direct leverage over the university's investments; it must exert influence by consensus (political mandate) if it is going to lead the U.'s investment committee toward divestment. This split vote cannot be taken as a mandate for divestment.

This split reflects our current societal dilemma, wherein we know that carbon emissions must be reduced even while our entire society is dependent on fossil fuels. A multitude of opportunities exist in this problem, and genuine research opportunities exist in carbon efficiency, carbon capture, alternative energy sources, centralization of combustion and efficient distribution of electricity, among many others. People from technology (e.g., Elon Musk) to finance (e.g., Warren Buffett) sectors see that this arena will reward creativity and know-how with fortune.

The U. Academic Senate voted on a separate resolution (that same day) which focused on the above opportunities rather than divestment. It passed by overwhelming majority (83 voted positive, with 3 abstentions). This Academic Senate vote is a clear mandate to address the challenge via our creative, research and infrastructure capabilities and in the many opportunities within and outside of fossil fuels.

Less than 1 percent of the U.'s endowment investments are in fossil fuel-intensive holdings, so even full divestment is only a symbolic statement. The pro-divestment camp wants to show the world that the U. recognizes the problem with fossil fuels. The non-divestment camp believes that divestment is a diversion relative to the hard work of actually reducing carbon emissions.

The focus on divestment is already having negative impacts to the university. Faculty members in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences and the College of Engineering are currently being contacted by energy company officials who express confusion regarding the U.'s position and the value of sending recruiters. The loss is not only to career opportunities for graduates but also to the goal of energy transition. My colleague, Dr. Cari Johnson, notes: "many very talented scientists and engineers at UU are working hard to accomplish the energy transition through partnerships with the industry, which, after all, has some of the most advanced technology available for achieving goals like carbon capture and storage, enhanced geothermal, offshore platforms (tide and wave energy), etc. We now are at risk of losing those valued partnerships, the advances they likely hold, and the financial support, including overhead, that they generate."

The personal retirement investments of U. employees dwarf the endowment holdings by more than a factor of three. Divesting personally is far more powerful in sum than divesting institutionally via the endowment, and this power has always been available. It's not clear to me why this power wasn't examined or harnessed instead of creating needless damage. The divestment camp at U. seems to have had their day in the sun. Let's hope that, from here on, we can engage in the real work of reducing carbon emissions.

Bill Johnson is president of the Academic Senate and a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.