In May, Stanford University withdrew all direct investments in coal mining companies, in response to a recommendation from a diverse university panel and a student-led campaign called Fossil Free Stanford. It will make Stanford the largest of at least 13 universities nationwide that have pledged to divest from coal, and it won’t be the latest; since the writing of this article, the University of Dayton in Ohio has added its name to the list of divesting schools and the list continues to grow. This is a movement that’s spreading to other universities and colleges, including several in Minnesota where, in addition to coal divestment, institutes of higher learning throughout the state are accomplishing much in the way of sustainability and research towards clean energy solutions for the future.
The research and innovation in the field of clean energy in its institutes of higher learning continues to make Minnesota an example for the Midwest. Campuses including Carleton College, Macalester College, Augsburg College, and the University of St. Thomas have made efforts to cultivate a culture of efficiency and sustainability through composting, recycling, and efficiency programs. Minnesota campuses that have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) have begun transitioning to zero waste in greenhouse gases. The Green Report Card gives the sustainability ratings of several Minnesota post-secondary institutions, three of which earned excellent marks as of 2011: Macalester College received an A-, Carleton College was also awarded an A-, and the University of Minnesota earned a solid A.
There are Fossil Free campaigns already in place in Carleton College, Macalester College, the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Augsburg College, the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, St. Olaf College, Winona State, the University of Minnesota – Duluth, and the University of Minnesota – Morris. As the same student-led campaign that spurred Stanford’s decision, Fossil Free is a promising agent to make coal divestment a reality in universities and colleges both in Minnesota and nationwide.
The University of Minnesota – Twin Cities is now a leader in Minnesota colleges for not only its commitment to divest from coal, but also its pioneering research efforts in sustainability. The university has committed to move beyond coal with the Sierra Club, releasing a schematic plan in 2013 that details efficiency improvements through the year 2030. For more ways the University of Minnesota is pioneering research into efficient, clean energy, visit their Environment page.
While Stanford’s decision is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, some critics say the impact on the coal industry, as well as coal’s future prospects, is too minimal to matter. In fact, Stanford itself rejected the proposal in prior years for the same reason. Brown University rejected a similar student proposal, stating, “Divestiture would convey only a nebulous statement—that coal is harmful—without speaking to the technological and policy actions needed to reduce the harm from coal—actions where Brown can make real and important contributions, through teaching and research.” Harvard rejected a similar proposal, albeit for different reasons; Harvard President Drew Faust said last fall, “The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”
One student reaction to President Faust’s statement was that the goal of divestment is not to make a monetary impact on the fossil fuel industry, but to make a moral and political statement. Both reactions allude to a need for more than one approach in order to successfully eliminate dependence on coal. While the monetary impact of divestment may be small on the coal industry, the numbers can be quite impactful to the institutions themselves. Moreover, the symbolic weight of each school’s decision will not go unrecognized, especially by the growing number of students who are making combating climate change a priority for themselves and their generation. Divesting from coal may still be a great decision for colleges and universities, but as we can see from Minnesota’s forward-thinking students and institutions, its full potential is realized when combined with research and innovation toward long-term solutions to replacing coal as a resource and addressing the larger, global issue of climate change.
For a full list of colleges and universities divesting from coal, see the Fossil Free Campaign.