By DONOVAN HARRELL
The University of Pittsburgh’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2037 wasn’t enough for some members of the Pitt community hoping the Board of Trustees also would vote at its Feb. 28 meeting to immediately divest Pitt’s more than $4 billion endowment from “fossil fuel” industries to help combat climate change.
Pitt administrators and the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition agree that climate change poses a serious threat to the University, but disagree on a timeline for if and when Pitt should divest from these companies.
And now that the board also approved a new Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) process at the meeting, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher can address specific divestment requests from the Pitt community if the Board of Trustees asks him to do so.
When asked if he would set up a committee to look into fossil fuel divestment specifically, Gallagher said: “Remember that’s a board decision. If the board invites us, we set that process up. If I’m asked, my intention is to immediately move to set it up.”
After the meeting, Gallagher said student protesters are bringing attention to a serious issue, but specific solutions and strategies still need to be worked out.
“I don’t want to belittle the voice of the students here. I think that their passion that you saw is real. I think that their belief that this is a crisis they’re facing in their lifetime is real. And I think and I agree with them, that the University has responsibilities to act,” Gallagher said. “What I think is less obvious to me is reasonable people can disagree on whether the specific remedy they’re proposing is one that would be acceptable when you consider the decision the board has to weigh.”
The Investment Committee of the board also will vote on an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria policy on March 25, Gallagher said, which will evaluate the value and risks of certain investment criteria related to SRI.
Further discussion on sustainability and SRI strategies is expected to reappear at the Board of Trustees’ next annual meeting on June 26, Gallagher said.
Protesters demand more
Even though the trustees unanimously approved the pledge for Pitt to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2037, protesters from the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition said this isn’t enough.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but we view it as wholly inadequate,” said Prem Rajgopal, a Pitt student and Fossil Free Pitt Coalition organizer. “If the University is investing in industries that are complicit in the climate crisis, a step toward carbon neutrality really is just a drop in the bucket compared to the overall impact of all the endowment investments.”
During the meeting, protesters sang a modified version of “We Shall Not Be Moved” edited with a list of four demands:
Divest Pitt’s endowments from fossil fuel industries immediately.
Trustees with fossil fuel ties must abstain from the vote.
A public comment period at the public trustees meetings.
Give the public “more of a say” in investment decisions.
This brought the meeting to a halt as Board Chair Eva Tansky Blum repeatedly told them they were out of order. Pitt Police removed the large group of protesters from the building after they drowned out Blum’s calls for order.
This isn’t the first time the group has disrupted a trustees meeting with these demands. Protesters read speeches during the fall meeting of the board in October 2019.
After the meeting, Blum said the board is taking the ongoing threat of climate change seriously as it works out the next steps in applying Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) strategies to the issue.
However, the Board of Trustees also has a responsibility to make sure the University’s financial needs are met.
“This issue, which is clearly important to the Board of Trustees, extends beyond investment decisions. When we make significant decisions, it is the board’s fiduciary duty to have information from all of the stakeholders,” she said. “As was discussed today, this issue requires input from multiple committees. This morning, the board took two meaningful steps to address the reality and threat of climate change. Now, I will immediately consult with the board committee chairs on next steps.”
Fossil Free Pitt organizers said representatives from the Board of Trustees encouraged them to submit a formal letter or request up to 15 days before the meeting to address the board. They decided not to use this process because they saw it as “wholly inefficient.”
“We just haven’t seen channels open to actually have a tangible discussion with board members,” Rajgopal said. “They have the choice to approve or not approve reading said letter. So we just view that process as not a public comment period, just wholly illegitimate and just kind of an affront to the idea of transparency and accountability.”
Before the protest at the meeting and afterward, organizers with the group staged a sit-in at the Cathedral of Learning for 12 days to try and bring awareness to the issue.
They eventually left the cathedral on March 4 because of the physical and emotional toll it took on the group, Rajgopal said. Even though their demands weren’t met, Rajgopal said the sit-in was successful.
“I think it was a very positive display of student power and the role of organizing within this country. And while we are disheartened by the role that the Board of Trustees and our administration have played in stalling divestment, we’re very confident that we have a future in which divestment is going to be on the table very soon.”
The protests will continue once organizers have time to recover from the sit-in, Rajgopal added, and “if the administration and the Board of Trustees don’t choose to act, there’s going to be pressure on them from all fronts.”
Socially responsible investing
The core of the debate is the idea of socially responsible investing, where financial returns are balanced with social issues, such as climate change.
Gallagher formed a Socially Responsible Investment Committee in January 2018 following increasing concern from the Pitt community about the University’s investment decisions.
The committee released a report in July, which included community input, data on SRI funds and more. Among its many findings, the committee found that it was in the University’s best interest to keep several non-financial issues in mind when selecting investments in addition to other issues concerning university finances.
Gallagher announced in August 2019 that Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Hari Sastry will work to come up with socially responsible investment strategies.
With the Board of Trustees’ support of Gallagher signing the Second Nature Climate Leadership Statement and Carbon Commitment, Pitt will become the ninth-largest institution in the Association of American Universities to commit to net-zero carbon emissions, according to Pittwire.
Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s director of sustainability, said the 2037 deadline is special because it coincides with the University’s 250th anniversary.
“As a University, we have made great strides in supporting sustainable practices, teaching, research and partnerships through innovation and collaboration. But we can — and must — do more,” Sharrard said in Pittwire. “We will continue to engage across campus, Pittsburgh, the U.S. and the world to ensure equitable access and opportunity for shared prosperity among all members of the Pitt community and beyond.”
Pitt will achieve this goal, according to PittWire, through infrastructure improvements and seeking out renewable energy resources.
Pitt has already been making progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Sharrard said, adding that she’s confident that the University will continue its upward trend. Between 2008, when the University first began tracking its carbon footprint, and 2017, Pitt reduced greenhouse emissions by 22 percent.
This new commitment further solidifies the University’s drive to continue toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, Sharrard said. But the commitment is a separate issue from socially responsible investing.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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