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UO refuses to sell fossil fuel stocks, ignoring student vote



Even before University of Oregon students voted for the university to divest from fossil fuel investments, the UO Foundation had rejected the resolution.

“Thank you for the input, but we will not be divesting,” Paul Weinhold, the president and CEO of the UO Foundation, told The Register-Guard ahead of the April vote.

The UO Foundation is a non-profit that manages and grows the school’s $600 million endowment for generations to come. 

A majority of the student body, 73 percent, voted for the non-binding resolution asking UO to divest from fossil fuels within five years.

Divestment is the opposite of investment. It means reducing a certain type of asset, often for ethical reasons.

Zach Mulholland, co-founder of the Divest UO campaign, explains that divestment is not intended to hurt targeted industries financially. It is a symbolic move meant to spur government action — in this case, to reduce carbon emissions.

“While selling a small number of investments is unlikely to have a large financial impact on fossil fuel companies,” Mulholland said, “in the short term, it will raise awareness of just how bad these investments are and keep our university from being exposed to them.”

Divestment is used by many governments and institutions to help provoke change. The most famous divestment campaign was in 1986, when Congress voted to divest from South African stocks to protest apartheid. The U.S. has pursued politically motivated divestment against Sudan, Iran and Russia.

Go Fossil Free is pushing for divestment campaigns around the country, lead by 350.org. The number 350 symbolizes their multi-pronged effort to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide from 400 parts per million to a safe 350 ppm.

Five U.S. colleges recently decided to completely divest from fossil fuels. Stanford is selling its coal stocks, while Harvard, Oregon State University and many other institutions are debating the issue.

However, UO has already decided not to follow the student vote asking to divest. 

The foundation’s assets currently have an all-time high market value of over $600 million, but only one percent of stocks are in fossil fuels. Weinhold argues that selling them wouldn’t make a difference. 

The foundation has made some steps toward environmentally friendly investing: UO was the first Pac-12 university to draft a policy supporting investment in sustainable industries. However, the foundation will not publish the details of that policy or release a list of stocks they own.

The foundation’s reason for keeping their fossil fuel stocks isn’t because selling them might cause a financial blow to the endowment.

In fact, Weinhold said that the foundation hadn’t even estimated the financial impact of divestment, because they would never consider selling stocks to make a political statement.

“There can be all kinds of issues that people may not want us to invest in, but we have to take a responsible approach,” he says. “We don’t make the decision to invest or not invest because of something that might be the cause of the day.”

But Divest UO isn’t giving up. They’re campaigning for a fall UO Senate vote, to show faculty support for the issue.

Mulholland knows UO wants to avoid becoming embroiled in ethical debates about every stock. “However,” he said, “we think an endowment that was created for a university that prides itself on social and environmental justice should be a leader in responsible investing.”

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