Regents at the University of Washington voted unanimously Thursday to divest the university’s endowment from coal companies, but they refused to touch investments in other fossil fuels.
The University of Washington soon will divest about $2 million of its multibillion- dollar endowment from coal, following a unanimous vote of the Board of Regents on Thursday to sell its shares in publicly traded coal companies.
But the university is not likely to get rid of its investments in other fossil-fuel industries anytime soon. After agreeing to divest in coal, the regents approved a resolution saying they don’t recommend ending investments in other fossil fuels like oil and gas because that would have a larger negative impact on the school’s endowment.
Students who met with regents about coal divestment earlier this year influenced the board’s decision, said Regent Joanne Harrell, vice-chair of the board’s finance and asset-management committee.
“We think it’s the right thing to do at this time,” she said.
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About $2.3 million of the university’s $2.6 billion endowment is invested in coal, less than 1 percent of all investments.
By selling those shares, the UW expects to lose about $13 million over the next 20 years.
Divesting in all fossil fuels would be much costlier over the long run. The university would lose about $250 million over the next 20 years if it sold all its shares in fossil-fuel companies, university spokesman Norm Arkans said.
No one pretends that the UW’s decision on coal will have any serious impact on coal companies, Arkans said.
“Somebody else is going to come along and buy those shares,” he said. “It really is a symbolic action. It’s sending a message.”
Students cheered after the regents’ unanimous vote.
They hope the UW’s decision — and similar ones at other institutions — will start a ripple effect that ultimately will lessen demand for fossil fuels, said Alex Lenferna, a graduate student in philosophy and a Fulbright Scholar who is a member of the anti-coal group Divest UW.
The idea dates back at least to the 1980s, when divestment by universities in South African companies helped end that country’s system of apartheid.
“When we have a big institution like the University of Washington calling out this industry, it starts to affect society,” Lenferna said. “It starts to shift societal and moral and economic norms about whether we want to invest in this.”
In their resolution, regents called climate change “one of the most serious challenges facing our planet.” They agreed that universities can influence the trajectory of climate change in several ways: by researching causes, identifying cleaner technology and doing things on campus that reduce carbon emissions.
The UW already requires all students to buy a bus pass, runs an organic farm on campus and even offers specially marked bins in bathrooms so people can compost paper towels.
Earlier this week, faculty at Seattle University approved an open letter to administrators and university trustees asking them to completely divest that institution’s endowment from all fossil fuels — not just coal. Seattle University has so far rejected calls to divest, although a task force is now looking at that possibility and weighing other socially responsible investment questions. A student group at Western Washington University also tried unsuccessfully to get that school’s foundation to divest from fossil fuels.
But other institutions have voted to divest. Last year, Stanford and the University of Maine state system divested from coal.