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November 24, 2015

Faculty calls for divestment from fossil fuels

An online letter urging the University to divest from fossil fuels has accumulated 192 signatures from faculty members since it began circulating last May.

According to fourth-year Sam Zacher, co-coordinator of University Climate Action Network’s (UCAN) faculty letter campaign, half of these signatures have come in the past two months.

The “Faculty Open Letter to the Board of Trustees,” which was co-written by UCAN and University faculty, reads: “We believe that profiting from these industries conflicts with the paramount social value of avoiding significant and permanent degradation of our planet that, if left unchecked, will adversely affect all of us, personally and as an institution.”

The letter references the Kalven Report, a 1967 University document that prohibits the University from taking a stance on political or social issues unless “paramount social values” are being violated, or unless the very mission of the university is being threatened. The petition’s letter argues that the University’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry violates paramount social values, and that climate change is a threat to the mission of the University.

The Kalven Report was also the subject of controversy in 2006 when students pressured the University to divest from companies complicit in the Darfur genocide. The University argued that divestment from Darfur would be contrary to the Kalven report.

“The question of whether the University of Chicago should divest from companies that do business with the government of Sudan became the subject of intense and ongoing discussion among our students, faculty, administration and trustees as well as with community leaders. The outcome of these active deliberations reflected a lack of consensus on the effectiveness of divestment and other economic boycotts,” said Julie A. Peterson, former vice president of communications for the University, in a 2008 statement regarding the Darfur decision.

The petition that is currently being circulated does not stipulate that it is the faculty’s role to make decisions.

“We don’t want faculty to express their opinion because we think the faculty have the expertise to make financial decisions. That is the board's job. But, we want to show that the faculty are in this because the faculty are a substantial part of what the University is and represents,” Zacher said.

The faculty letter was mentioned in a recent letter to The Maroon by M. Todd Henderson, a professor at the Law School.

Henderson wrote, “There is no evidence to demonstrate it [divestment] will do anything to help the climate, and it will ultimately cost the University hundreds of millions of dollars.”

When asked about this letter, Zacher said “there have been studies about investment funds that do not contain fossil fuel investments that have outperformed those that do.”

He added, “Divestment will have some effect. During Apartheid, it did have a stigmatizing effect.”

Henderson also wrote: “[Students for a Just and Sustainable Future] and others might argue that their campaign is about raising public awareness of the problem of carbon emissions and fossil fuels. If this is their goal, there are far better ways to proceed: for instance, getting universities to use energy more efficiently, to source their energy from more renewable sources, or to change students’ energy usage.”

UCAN eventually plans to deliver this letter to the Board of Trustees, though a timeline has not been set.

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