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DivestUVA — a grassroots campaign demanding that the University remove its investments from the fossil fuel industry — published a second open letter to University President Ryan and the Board of Visitors on Jan. 22 advocating for the divestment of endowment funds from fossil fuel-based companies and other unsustainable ventures, including prison labor.
This coalition has been in existence for the past five years with the hopes of making the University carbon neutral by 2030 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. DivestUVA last wrote a letter to the Board of Visitors in the spring of 2020, fully detailing why the University must divest from these resources in order to address the institution’s climate change impacts beyond Grounds.
The University’s 2020-30 Sustainability Plan set goals to achieve carbon neutrality and become fossil fuel-free by 2030 and 2050, respectively. The 10-year sustainability plan was laid out in October 2020 and includes other goals such as reducing water use, reducing waste and enhancing sustainability teaching.
According to DivestUVA’s second open letter, it acknowledges the University’s duty to embody the values laid out in its 2030 Strategic Plan to become both “great and good.”
“[The University can] achieve an alignment of [its] endowment investments to [its] publicly acclaimed values of racial equity and environmental sustainability,” the letter read. “We believe that our endowment investments are a tool to either foster the change we would like to see in our local and global communities or to continue to uphold existing racially and environmentally unjust power structures that, as an institution, we publicly decry.”
DivestUVA asks for these funds to be reinvested into “assets that honor the future of faculty, staff and students” at the University.
Some of DivestUVA’s other demands include defining what is encompassed in fossil fuel industries and getting the University to disclose the percentage of current investments held in such industries through the University Investment Management Company, a third-party private company that handles the University’s investments.
The details of UVIMCO’s investment portfolio are not available to the public. However, in an interview with The Cavalier Daily in May 2020, UVIMCO chief operating officer Kristina Alimard estimated the extent to which the University invests in fossil fuel industries.
“Natural resources investments represented 5.4% of UVIMCO’s Long Term Pool as of June 30, 2019, and that allocation may be used as a decent estimate of the percentage of U.Va.’s endowment that is invested in companies associated in one way or another with natural resources including fossil fuels,” she said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
In 2019, the University’s endowment was reported to be worth $9.6 billion, and assuming this 5.4 percent rate, it was estimated that the University spent approximately $5.2 million of their endowment on natural resources, including fossil fuels. The University’s current endowment is reported to be $9.9 billion, so assuming the same 5.4 percent rate, it can be estimated that the University is spending approximately $5.3 million on natural resources.
Cydnie Golson, Chair of Student Council Sustainability Committee, explained that defining fossil fuel industries can be difficult given that these companies are now directing their investments towards renewable energy.
“The definition of “fossil fuel industries” can be very complicated, as for example certain historically fossil-fuel-based companies may be heavily investing in renewable energy now as they attempt to be part of the transition to a cleaner energy future,” Golson said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “The best answer for the climate may be to continue to support such companies, somehow qualifying that they continue to move towards practices that will ensure a just and sustainable future.”
Moreover, DivestUVA would like to work with the University to develop a timeline to officially divest from fossil-fuel industries. It is the goal of DivestUVA to ensure that there is constant communication among all stakeholders involved in order to define a responsible framework for the University’s investments.
Aayusha Khanal, DivestUVA member and co-vice chair of the Student Council Sustainability Committee, is not aware of any changes that have been made by the University since the letter was written in spring 2020.
“Around the time the spring 2020 DivestUVA letter was published, COVID was on the top of everyone’s concerns so I feel like DivestUVA’s demands got muffled under all the chaos,” Khanal said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I feel like that was part of the reason why we have yet to see any of our demands met.”
However, Golson noted that many members of the Board of Visitors support this initiative and have been interested in incorporating more environment, social, and governance (ESG) concerns into the University’s investing practices since at least around the spring of 2020.
“To be clear, a large part of the variety of members within the BOV have long supported sustainability plans and goals,” Golson said. “In regards to fossil fuel divestment, however, it got more complicated with investments being managed by the University of Virginia Investment Management Company … a private company.”
Ilyas Saltani, another DivestUVA member and chair of the Student Council Diversity Engagement Committee, who is working closely with this campaign, also noted that no tangible changes have been made. According to Saltani, this was expected given that they have a tentative timeline that they are following. Given that their goal is to be fossil-fuel free by 2050, Saltani acknowledges that the changes that DivestUVA is requesting will come slowly. However, Saltani pointed out that the recent open letter may not create immediate change but instead can serve as a catalyst.
“This time we wanted to engage all stakeholders — we want to engage students, faculty and even the Board of Visitors,” Saltani said. “So what we could say is that we finally have a seat at the table in terms of changes because we have been in touch with the student member of the Board of Visitors, who’s been able to kind of push these ideas and get us on the agenda for the Board of Visitors.”
According to Khanal, the student member of the Board of Visitors — fourth-year College student Mazzen Shalaby — spoke about divestment and shared their first letter during the Board meeting in December. While the Board agreed with what was said in the letter, its members said that divestment would be difficult to accomplish.
DivestUVA is seeking to join many other peer institutions who have already begun to divest from fossil fuel-based companies. Most recently, Columbia University enacted a policy on fossil fuel non-investment. However, Saltani mentioned that the University is behind other institutions, due to, in part, the fact that the University’s investments are handled by UVIMCO. According to Saltani, the University has communicated to DivestUVA that the process of divesting is much more complicated than it seems due to the fact that the University’s investments are handled by a third party.
“I think that the administration’s hands are tied in terms of how quickly they can move money and how easily that can be done,” Saltani said. “The workflow is a lot longer and I think a lot more nuanced than we know, which is why we are also speaking to the issue of transparency and kind of having a voice in the room.”
For this second letter, DivestUVA made it a goal to reach out to as many students and organizations as possible across Grounds in order to garner support for their cause. Some groups that have already demonstrated their support include the Engineering Student Council, Profit with Purpose, Latinx Student Alliance and Greens to Grounds, among many others. On Tuesday, Student Council presented legislation during its meeting in support of divesting from fossil fuels. According to Khanal, DivestUVA wants to “use that opportunity to gather more student support via signatures” The legislation will be voted on at the next Student Council meeting next Tuesday.
According to Golson, DivestUVA works closely with different CIO’s, specifically Wahoos for Sustainability and Green Leaders in order to bring awareness to their coalition. DivestUVA collaborates with Wahoos for Sustainability in order to communicate updates on their effort to a body of alumni. Moreover, DivestUVA provides updates to Green Leaders to “spread awareness and build momentum for this initiative.”
Ultimately, Khanal emphasized the importance of reaching divestment as soon as possible given that climate change is happening and disproportionately affects minority communities.
“With U.Va.’s recent efforts to address racial injustice and their efforts to use clean energy and reduce waste, I thought divesting from fossil fuels would be a no-brainer,” Khanal said. “We’ve said this time and again but climate justice is integral to racial and social justice, so divesting from fossil fuels is absolutely necessary.”
Second-year College student Kayvon Samadani, who signed the petition in support of the letter, noted that the University’s commitment to a greener future, which is laid out in the University’s 2020-30 Sustainability Plan, should mean that they are willing to divest from these unsustainable ventures.
“I think any commitment to a greener future in combating climate change and the climate crisis needs to be coupled with a financial component,” Samadani said. “As much as U.Va. wants to be carbon neutral and fund labs that focus on sustainability and green energy, if they’re still funding fossil fuels, they’re still intimately involved with the climate crisis.”
As of Monday, the petition has nearly 400 signatures.
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