By DONOVAN HARRELL and SUSAN JONES
At two open forums last week, Pitt faculty, staff, students and alumni asked why the University still hasn’t divested its $4.3 billion endowment from fossil fuel industries.
The events on Oct. 28 and 30 were part of the Board of Trustees’ Ad-Hoc Committee on Fossil Fuels’ efforts to decide “options on whether, to what extent, and via what methods the University, in its endowment, should consider divestment from fossil fuels in existing and/or future investments.”
Some speakers, who each were given three-minute time slots, wondered why the forum was necessary at all when members of Pitt community have already spent years repeatedly calling for divestment from fossil fuels.
Protests over whether to divest Pitt’s consolidated endowment fund of all investments related to fossil fuels have been brewing for several years and came to a head in February. Students with the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition held a sit-in at the Cathedral of Learning for several days, alumni supporting the coalition met with Pitt administrators to discuss the issue, and the coalition staged a protest at the quarterly Board of Trustees on Feb. 29, following a similar action at the board’s October 2019 meeting.
“I want to start by saying that the formation of this committee itself is extremely disappointing to me,” Annalise Abraham, a junior and student government board member, said at the forum. “Students have been campaigning for divestment since 2014, and in 2019 in the student government election, 91 percent of student voters voted in favor of divestment, the fact that we are still having this discussion shows just how out of touch the board and the University is with the desires of students.”
Nick Forest, a Ph.D. student and member of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, later echoed this sentiment, adding the forum and the formation of the committee are frustrating delay tactics.
“I truly wish I could say that I’m excited this public forum is being held today and that the community is having the chance to make its voice heard, instead, I’m ashamed,” Forest said. “I’m ashamed the Board of Trustees is resorting to these impotent stall tactics.”
Forest said the coalition has presented its arguments for this multiple times with support of faculty and staff.
Nick Goodfellow, a Pitt alum and current staff member in the University’s Office of Sustainability, said he first joined the divestment effort as a student in 2014, “because then we knew the horrific threat of climate change. Six years later that threat is even greater. … And we see clearly that the industry will not make the necessary shifts by themselves.
“I am very proud of the massive strides Pitt has made in sustainability in the last 10 years,” he said. “We have a great sustainability plan; engaged students, faculty and staff working on making the world a better place for everyone. … I believe we must maintain this commitment to a better world, and embrace it holistically, including in our endowment investments. Divesting from fossil fuels matters. We cannot continue to invest in an industry that so threatens the future of ourselves and our loved ones.”
Throughout the forums, several Pitt faculty, staff, students and alumni joined Abraham and Forest in calling for the University’s divestment, citing numerous studies showing the ways fossil fuels are harming the environment.
Fossil fuel pollution has been especially harmful in marginalized communities who struggle with numerous health issues, several speakers said.
Ellen Oordt, a junior studying ecology and evolution and a member of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, cited Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s message this summer about fighting against systemic racism to make her argument for divestment.
“While you sit here taking years to make this decision, black communities within Western Pennsylvania and the United States are being harmed by this endowment that supports an extraction economy — 68 percent of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant Black Americans are exposed to over one and a half times more air pollution than white people, and Black children with asthma rates are twice as high as white children.”
Some speakers said investing in fossil fuels is a poor economic strategy that many companies and universities have already moved away from.
“It seems you could invest in just about any other sector of the economy and do better, and Pitt should,” said Susan Peterson, a graduate student in the English department.
Peter Trachtenberg, an associate professor of English, said, “In June, analysts predicted that because of climate-related investment risks and the economic shutdown of the coronavirus pandemic, the profits of coal, oil and natural gas industries are set to fall by $25 trillion. Why is this institution holding onto an investment that’s going to lose $25 trillion in value.”
He said Pitt may be holding onto these investments because of Western Pennsylvania’s historical ties to these industries. “But I would say to people who work in the oil and gas industries what I would say that people who grow opium in Afghanistan, that this is an industry that is impacting and destroying the lives of millions of people, and we cannot abet it or have any part in it.”
The Board of Trustees ultimately has the sole power to make substantial changes to the University’s investments. Chancellor Gallagher has reiterated this point over the past two years, saying the board has an important “balancing act” to maintain the endowment. Investments should be “as aligned with our core values as possible,” Gallagher said in October 2019, while also maintaining a steady income.
At the February meeting, the Board of Trustees unanimously approved a formal socially responsible investing process, which gives the chancellor a pathway to bring issues from the Pitt community surrounding SRI to the board. This process is what led to the ad-hoc committee that will look at divesting from fossil fuels.
The committee, chaired by board member Dawne Hickton, has already heard in private from members of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, along with Kathryn L. Murtagh, chief compliance officer and the managing director for sustainable investing, Harvard Management Company, Inc., a subsidiary of Harvard University; Pat Miguel Tomaino, director of socially responsible investing, Zevin Asset Management; and Gregory Schuler, Pitt’s chief investment officer.
Anyone who wishes to submit a statement to the committee can do so through Nov. 13 on the Board of Trustees website.
The ad hoc committee plans to provide a report to the Board of Trustees by Jan. 15, 2021.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905. Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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