A guide to the fossil fuel divestment discussion and an indictment of President Eisgruber’s response.
New York City has done it. London has done it. Brown, Georgetown, Stanford, and 166 other educational institutions have done it. It is recommended by activists as the number one tool for institutional combating of climate change. The topic on the table: fossil fuel divestment.
Divestment has long been used by activists as a method of making an ethical and financial statement against an issue. Princeton has divested its assets from implicated corporations twice—once in 1987, when they divested from companies profiting from apartheid, and once in 2006, when they divested from companies doing business in Sudan, following the Darfur genocide. Now, universities, cities, and other large institutions are pulling their stocks and assets from fossil fuel companies, making the decision to not be as directly responsible for our climate’s destruction. Princeton refuses.
The first reason that any institution should divest is that it is immoral to profit from companies destroying your students’ future. The second reason that divestment is asked for is that it works.
When New York City pledged to divest, it removed five billion dollars from the fossil fuel industry. In total, there has been more than 6 trillion dollars committed to pull from the fossil fuel industry. This has made a big enough impact that it is coming up as a security risk in fossil fuel companies’ paperwork. It scares companies to see powerful institutions disaffiliate—even if someone else buys shares.
And the decision to divest would come at no financial loss for an institution like Princeton. An analysis by the asset-management firm Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo & Company has shown that stock portfolios without fossil fuels perform just as well (if not slightly better) than stock portfolios including fossil fuels.
When Grantham, founding member of the asset management firm and philanthropist, was asked who needed to divest next, he said, “Harvard, Yale, Princeton.”
Princeton not having divested is not due to a lack of trying from the students.
In 2015, a sea of Princeton students organized to ask the administration to divest the endowment from holdings in fossil fuels. There were multiple petitions: one on Change.org with 1,040 signatures, another with 1,600 from faculty, students, and alums.
In the spring, they got their response. President Christopher Eisgruber penned a response that manages to be painstaking in its negligence. The letter has since been removed from Princeton sites. He wrote, “If the University itself behaves in a manner that is politically partial, we weaken our capacity to contribute to this debate in the way that is most needed, and as we are uniquely capable of doing — by providing authoritative and impartial scholarly expertise.”
That old, shared understanding: It’s awkward to discuss politics.
One would think that with all those fancy degrees, Chris would know better.
Climate change is not politics. It is fact. Universal fact. And the right declining to come up with a singular effective solution does not make it less so.
But ignoring a universal, global threat to protect fossil fuel companies—that’s political.
In a piece written for the Prince last spring, Claire Wayner ‘22 wrote, “in actuality, choosing not to divest in today’s politicized climate is just as much of a political statement as choosing to divest.”
Regarding donors with views whose views range on a political spectrum, Eisgruber feels we “obliged to keep faith with them.” But are we? What does the university need 25.9 billion dollars for? Columbia has an endowment 40% the size of ours, at 10.9 billion. Dartmouth has an endowment that is 5.5 billion, around a fifth the size of ours, and Brown’s sits at 3.8 billion dollars. What are we protecting all this money for? And what could possibly be more important than protecting future human life?
What Eisgruber says when he says that it is more important to him to remain politically neutral on behalf of his investors—is not that he does not want to make people mad. It’s that he’d rather his students be mad than his investors.
So he sides with fossil fuel companies over students asking to have their futures protected. In doing so, he puts all of our futures in danger over his presidential legacy.
Let’s go back to that first Eisgruber quote, the one in which he says Princeton’s primary role is “to [provide] authoritative and impartial scholarly expertise.”
It is precisely this reputation of Princeton— as an objective source of fact (hard to come by these days)—that is why Princeton should divest from fossil fuels. Because it makes a difference when objective sources act.
If this were another issue, I would say that Eisgruber is on the wrong side of history. But by keeping the Princeton endowment entrenched in fossil fuels, he is ensuring we will have no history—and no future.