Wesleyan’s mission statement emphasizes “practical idealism” as one of the university’s core values. And in many ways, Wesleyan’s policies reflect this pragmatic ethos. The university’s strong advocacy for the merits of a liberal arts education, even as STEM reigns supreme across other campuses, demonstrates its recognition that creative, idealistic thinking has practical value in the world.
But when it comes to its investment philosophy, Wesleyan’s idealism falls short.
Despite strong student appeals for Wesleyan to transfer its investments out of the fossil fuel industry, the Wesleyan endowment is still steeped in oil and gas. As the university’s list of direct holdings reveals, Wesleyan is invested in Cabot Oil and Gas, ARC Resources, Range Resources, and a handful of other fossil fuel companies. For a university that prides itself on its progressivism, its carbon-intense holdings stand out as a glaring contradiction. By accepting fossil fuel investments as financially necessary, Wesleyan’s administration appears to regard practicality and idealism as two mutually exclusive values as far as its endowment is concerned.
The Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) aims to prove otherwise.
In 2008, the WSA established its own endowment. This fund, which has been recognized as the first of its kind, set out to slowly reduce the Student Activities Fee (SAF), currently a $300 fee students are charged to support campus events and student initiatives. Yet, as Emma Austin, the President of the WSA, said, “After doing some modeling and projecting we realized that it would take over 100 years to eventually eliminate the SAF, which certainly doesn’t help current students, forcing us to consider who deserves to benefit from this incredible resource.”
Recognizing it doesn’t have to wait a century to put its endowment to work, the WSA has adopted a new set of objectives for the fund. Setting aside the goal of reducing the SAF, the WSA now plans to use its endowment to cap the SAF at its current rate and avoid future fee increases.
The new plan for the WSA Endowment isn’t merely functional. In revising its endowment policy statement, the WSA identified an opportunity to do some symbolic work as well.
On February 16th, the WSA is set to vote on a resolution to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. The resolution, which began as a joint project between the WSA and Wesleyan’s Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR), was already passed by the WSA in 2016, but it was never carried out. The upcoming vote will reaffirm the student assembly’s desire to divest and initiate the transfer of funds. Wesleyan’s Director of Financial Services, Val Nye, will be executing the transfer on behalf of the WSA and the CIR.
The WSA Endowment, as it stands, is already a largely socially responsible portfolio. But, as the WSA’s 2016 resolution points out, its endowment is invested in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index and in the Wesleyan endowment, both of which are tied to the fossil fuel industry. By transferring its money out of these funds into environmentally conscious indexes, the WSA aims to set a standard for incorporating the Wesleyan community’s ethical convictions into its investment decisions.
And they’re not alone. Sustainable investing is having a moment. BlackRock, Parnassus, Calvert, and other major investment firms are getting involved in the movement by launching sustainability-minded funds that take the environmental, social, and governmental (ESG) impact of their investments into account.
As the global economy responds to the growing perils of climate change, sustainable investing isn’t just the ethical choice; it’s the smart choice. If world leaders are serious about honoring the standards set out in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement and transitioning the energy sector towards renewables, then investors should look to the companies at the forefront of that transition, not those that will be left behind.
A bet against the value of sustainable investing is a bet against the potential for market-driven pressure to reduce industrial carbon emissions in the near future. It’s a bet against our ability to make the economic changes necessary to slow down climate collapse.
The Wesleyan administration has expressed intent to keep betting its endowment on the expansion of oil and gas extraction. But the WSA, taking advantage of its uniquely independent endowment, can stand with the Wesleyan community and divest from fossil fuels. By growing its endowment through well-performing sustainable funds, the WSA hopes to demonstrate that making astute financial decisions doesn’t require sacrificing environmental accountability.
Now that’s practical idealism.
Building momentum toward social progress starts with inspiring belief in the possibility of change. In this spirit, Wesleyan should join the expanding ranks of universities and institutions that have committed to the global movement away from fossil fuels. The students have spoken. It’s time for Wesleyan to listen and to embrace the belief that betting on a better world will pay off.
Tatum Millet ’19 is writing on behalf of the Wesleyan Student Assembly and the Committee on Investor Responsibility.