In the Spring of 2019, we submitted a Divestment/Reinvestment proposal and had a meeting with Boston University’s President, Robert A. Brown, and BU’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI). Members of Divest BU presented and negotiated the Divestment/Reinvestment proposal and discussed ways BU could take their endowment out of the fossil fuel industry.
Check it out here: DivestBU Reinvestment Proposal (1)
Beginning in January 2017, Divest BU has been directly corresponding with members of the BU administration via email. The letters are shown below, beginning with the December 2016 petition for the Board of Trustees to reconsider their divestment decision during their April meeting.
For a summary on the letters below, watch this video! It emphasizes our correspondence with Trustee Feld specifically.
This petition was submitted to President Brown on December 8, 2016. It was a response by the BU community to the Board of Trustees’ September 2016 decision to “avoid investing” in coal and tar sands and therefore not adapt the full recommendation of the ACSRI.
December 8, 2016
Dear President Brown and the Boston University Board of Trustees,
The students of Boston University call upon President Brown and the Board of Trustees reconsider divestment from direct and indirect holdings in companies that continue exploration for fossil fuel reserves at their April meeting.
In April 2016, The Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) proposed to “prohibit new and divest of any existing direct investments in those companies that (a) continue to explore for new fossil fuel reserves of any kind since the global fossil fuel reserves are estimated to be larger than the amount that can be used and still remain under the accepted estimated warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius or (b) extract coal and tar sands, the most carbon-intensive fuels, until, in the University’s judgment, those companies curtail such activities to drive their carbon footprint to acceptable levels.”.
In September 2016, in response, you chose to “on a best efforts basis, avoid investing in coal and tar sands extractors”. Not only does this commitment seem feeble given the vagueness of the terms ‘avoid investing’ and ‘on a best efforts basis’, but it also completely neglects the proposal to divest from companies that are continuing to explore for fossil fuel reserves. You also committed to “revisit this issue every five years, or more often, as economic, climatic, technological, and other developments may warrant.”
Our demand for reconsideration of divestment has two bases.
Firstly, the Board of Trustees’ September 2016 decision to ‘avoid investing’ in only coal and tar sands extractors neglects a crucial portion of the ACSRI’s proposal: to divest from “companies that continue to explore for fossil fuel reserves of any kind”. The goal of divestment is the moral discreditation of companies that bring forth unnecessary social and environmental harms; and when the University commits to only ‘avoid investing’ in a small subset of an extremely pernicious industry, it fails to achieve this goal. As the ASCRI pointed out, divestment from continually exploring companies is necessary in light of the fact that current global fossil fuel reserves already exceed the amount that can be safely burned.
Secondly, the students hold that the election of President Trump, as an ‘economic, climatic, technological or other development’, warrants reconsideration of fossil fuel divestment. With Trump’s election comes extreme threats to the progress made in the last few years towards a safe and clean energy future. It is more important now than ever that institutions across the nation such as Boston University take this moral stand against climate injustice, in the face of a federal government that refuses to acknowledge its very existence.
We hope that President Brown and the Board of Trustees takes this demand seriously and revisits the question of fossil fuel divestment in the upcoming April meeting.
On January 24, 2017 President Brown sent us a letter in response to our December petition and our #ResistRejectDenial Campus Climate Walkout on the National Day of Action on January 23, 2017.
January 24, 2017
Dear Divest BU Petitioners:
I have reviewed the petition from DivestBU which was delivered to my office on December 8. To summarize, your request is that the Board of Trustees reconsider original Recommendation #1 of the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) that the Board prohibit investment in companies that continue to explore for new reserves, because currently known reserves far exceed the capacity of the environment to safely absorb the effects of their consumption. You also argue that the Board should reconsider this recommendation because the goal of divestment is the moral discreditation of the carbon energy industry. You also argue for reconsideration on the grounds that the federal government (under the newly-elected President) refuses to acknowledge the existence of “climate injustice.”
As you know, the Board adopted two of the ACSRI’s three recommendations without qualification, although it was noted that the University was already following an investment approach consistent with Recommendation #2. In addressing Recommendation #1 the Board endorsed avoidance of investment in coal and tar sands on a “best efforts” basis. This guidance for management of our investment portfolio gives an operational mechanism for avoiding investments in these assets within the limits of institutional control over an endowment that has no direct investments.
I would encourage you to review the Board’s principles for judging recommendations for divestment which were the criteria the Board applied in carefully assessing the ACSRI recommendations. They are available at https://www.bu.edu/trustees/boardoftrustees/committees/acsri/principles- for-board-decision-making-on-divestment-requests/. You will note, I hope, the cautionary language about the concerns that are associated with a decision to take a political position in the voice of the University as a whole. Your arguments invoking the election outcome and the goal of morally discrediting the fossil fuel industry are inconsistent with this counsel.
Furthermore, in its decisions made at the September meeting, our Board of Trustees has accepted the concept of anthropogenic climate change. I don’t believe the Board should or will consider altering its decision in response to the outcome of the national election.
In my view the most important action taken by the Board was the commitment to the development of a Climate Action Plan (CAP). At the Board’s behest, we moved quickly to establish the Task Force to work on this. A key element of the group’s work will be to find ways to decrease demand for energy. Climate change can be mitigated only when all of us work to change our habits and patterns so that consumption declines.
That is a key priority for Boston University, and I imagine that the petition signatories are commensurately conscientious in efforts to reduce energy use. Consumers — institutions and individuals — hold the key to lowering the world’s use of fossil fuels. We must also realize that the increase in energy consumption world-wide means the challenge of lowering greenhouse gas emissions extends well beyond what we do here in the United States.
The Board acted after extensive deliberation in accord with its established principles and on the basis of detailed briefings on the science of climate change. As you have noted, the Board has pledged to revisit its decision about divestment within five years, taking into account current climatic, technological, and other developments. Please be assured that the Board will continue to monitor this issue.
Robert A. Brown
In response to President Brown and the Board of Trustees’ denial of our petition requests, Divest BU requested an in-person meeting with President Brown to discuss his letter, but he refused to meet with us. We visited his office almost every day for over a month to ask to schedule a meeting with him. During this month, we wrote an Open Letter to President Brown:
February 15, 2017
Dear President Brown,
Today marks the 13th day we are requesting a meeting with you regarding divestment from fossil fuels, and the 13th day you have denied our requests. On Dec. 8, 2016, we submitted a petition to you outlining our demand that the issue of divestment be brought back to the Board of Trustees during their Spring 2017 meeting, and on Jan. 24, 2017 you rejected our demand. As a University that prides itself on sustainability, we cannot continue to profit from an industry that is actively destroying the planet our generation will inherit from yours.
We are disheartened and disappointed with your refusal to meet with us. As students who commit four years of our lives and tuition dollars to Boston University, we have a significant stake in this institution.Your refusal to meet with us, combined with the Board’s negligent response to the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing’s (ACSRI) recommendation to divest from companies continuing to explore for new fossil fuel reserves, shows us that the BU administration has little regard for the opinions of the BU community. When you continue to close doors in our faces, our only available avenue is to raise our voices.
There should be an open dialogue about fossil fuel divestment. According to our mission statement, BU is “committed to educating students to be reflective, resourceful individuals ready to live, adapt, and lead in an interconnected world”. In order to lead in an interconnected world, we must take into account the global communities our local decisions affect – we must be ethical decision-makers. Open dialogue about the ethical questions BU regularly faces engages us in them and makes us critically analyze benefits and drawbacks. We learn from actively engaging, not from passively witnessing; and we are more likely to be globally engaged leaders in the future if we know our voices are heard today.
We also deserve to hold BU accountable. Too often, BU’s actions are concealed from an undervalued student body, diminishing the significance of ethical decisions and preventing outcries against unethical ones. Students deserve to know what is happening at our university, particularly on issues like divestment where student voices have been a driving force. When BU fully divests, we want a transparent system of accountability, so that the University’s progress in divesting the endowment from pernicious industries can be celebrated by the community and not remain hidden behind closed doors.
DivestBU has a history of engaging students and fighting for change. We have hosted rallies with hundreds of students, disseminated petitions with thousands of signatures, and promoted many other initiatives. We do it because we believe in awareness, engagement, and ethical citizenship. If Boston University does too, we should be granted a place at the table.
Students of DivestBU
President Brown responded to our Open Letter on February 23rd:
February 23, 2017
Dear DivestBU representatives:
I write in response to your e-mail of February 15th in which you express disappointment that I have not responded positively to your request to meet with me about DivestBU’s demand (I note your word choice) that the issue of divestment be brought back to the Boston University Board of Trustees. I am especially disappointed that in your account of recent history you leave two significantly misleading impressions: first, that the Board of Trustees acted in a peremptory or careless fashion and, second, that your organization and others have not had multiple opportunities to present information and engage in dialogue with the members of the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing at sessions specifically scheduled so that you could do so. (And I have been present for several of these.)
As I explained in my January 24th response to the December 8th petition, the Board acted in accordance with a set of guiding principles that had been established and on the basis of extensive briefing information about the science of climate change. The Board’s consideration of — and response to — the recommendations of the ACSRI was deliberate, extensive, and detailed. I don’t believe it is either accurate or fair to call the response “negligent.” The Board reached its conclusions only after the community — through the mechanism of the ACSRI — had “an open dialogue about fossil fuel divestment.” In your email you state that “There should be an open dialogue about fossil fuel divestment.” Four community forums were hosted by the ACSRI from April 2015 through February 2016, where BU faculty and external experts spoke about climate change and divestment issues. During the Q&A sessions and the receptions afterward, there were robust conversations between members of the ACSRI, speakers and panelists, faculty, staff, and students.
It seems to me that in the process we developed and used, the University did exactly what you speak of in your email. There were ample opportunities for active engagement and dialogue. That the Board, after due consideration, offered a qualified response to the recommendations of the ACSRI is because the Board members are entrusted with fiduciary responsibility to assess the advice of committees such as the ACSRI with a view to the stability of the institution and its broader responsibilities to society.
I appreciate the disappointment that the Board did not endorse all the recommendations of the ACSRI as submitted. But that is the Board’s prerogative. I fully understand your desire to register your disappointment with that outcome as you have done and which I have communicated to the Board. But I’d suggest that it is not fair for you to conflate that disappointment with language implying that there has been an absence of dialogue or access.
Simply put, your disagreement with the decisions of the Board of Trustees is not a ground for the Board to reconsider its decisions.
I offer the observation that in thinking about appropriate institutional responses to the real challenge of climate change we should recognize that because of the scientific and economic complexity of the issues, there are inevitably (and as a consequence of that complexity) tradeoffs and choices that are necessary but not always the most satisfying. For example, the world’s population depends on fossil fuels for its existence. According to the International Energy Outlook 2016, prepared by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/ieo/pdf/0484(2016).pdf), all renewable energy amounts to only 11% of the world’s total energy use (hydroelectric power is the largest component of renewable energy today). Reducing our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels by converting to renewable sources or nuclear power, is made more difficult to achieve by the worldwide demand for energy that is estimated to grow by almost 50% in the next 25 years.
The work of the Climate Action Plan Task Force is to propose a plan to address these real-world complexities in the context of the University’s particular circumstances and long-term priorities. I anticipate that the strategy will combine efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate the impact of climate change on our campus.
In the broader context of what policy actions by the state, country, or world are called for in the decades ahead to respond to the dangers of climate change and the continued use of fossil fuels, I believe it is important to consider the primary mission of a research university. It is not, I would argue, to take policy positions, but to foster research that provides the objective, validated information that informs policy-making and to create the conditions for researchers to achieve the technical breakthroughs that will provide the means to mitigate the effects of climate change and, most importantly, transform how we generate, transmit, and store energy. We do this by maintaining an environment that allows for freedom of inquiry and in which competing views and perspectives can be civilly debated.
Robert A. Brown
Once it was evident that President Brown was unrelentingly unwilling to talk with us, we thought we would reach out directly to the Board to Trustees, specifically to the Chairman of the Board, Kenneth Feld. Here is the letter we wrote to him:
March 6, 2017
Dear Chairman Feld,
We, the students, faculty, and alumni of DivestBU, are writing to you with the purpose of continuing the conversation about BU’s policies on investing in companies which continue to search for new fossil fuel reserves. As you know, this past fall the Board of Trustees considered the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing’s (ACSRI’s) recommendations regarding divestment from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the Board did not adopt the committee’s recommendation 1(a), that the Board divest from companies that “continue to explore for new fossil fuel reserves of any kind”, with no explanation or transparency. We therefore insist that the conversation about fossil fuel divestment cannot be over. The student group has been unsuccessful in scheduling a meeting with President Brown to discuss our case for the reconsideration of fossil fuel divestment, and as a result, we as a coalition are reaching out to you as a key decision maker in the BU administration.
As the Board has recognized, the seriousness of the threat and human costs represented by climate change is well established. Fossil fuels are the fundamental driver of anthropogenic climate change, and we have already tapped more reserves than we can safely burn and remain under any reasonable warming threshold as defined by the scientific community. The ACSRI explicitly recognized this when they recommended divestment from “those companies who continue to explore for fossil fuel reserves at any time”, noting that “global fossil fuel reserves are estimated to be larger than the amount that can be used and still remain under the accepted estimated warming limit of 2 degrees celsius”. Many of us are youth, who will inherit this Earth from previous generations, we have a large stake in the outcome of the drive to decrease CO2 emissions. We hope that the Board can recognize this urgency as well.
We are students, faculty, and alumni who appreciate the incredible research being done on the climate crisis by our professors and colleagues, the commitment BU has shown to seriously reducing our own carbon footprint through the Climate Action Plan and many other initiatives, and who care deeply for the future of this institution. We wonder, however, why the university is willing to continue placing itself on the wrong side of history. We wonder why the University accepts that profiting from coal and tar sands is wrong, but refuses to acknowledge the substantially higher degree to which fossil fuel companies searching for any new reserves are driving the climate crisis.
Today, more than ever, we see the corrosive influence of the fossil fuel industry on our political process. When our Secretary of Energy sits on the board of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and our Secretary of State is the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil it becomes terrifyingly obvious the degree to which fossil fuel interests affect our nation’s most important decision makers. We put it to you that this unprecedented influence of the fossil fuel industry on our national policy represents a development which warrants reconsideration of the issue by the Board at your next meeting. Fossil fuel divestment is about changing the narrative around this pernicious industry. Our university needs to stand up and say that an industry whose business model is predicated on throwing away our future is unacceptable in our society, since our government today will not.
We also want to take a moment address the concerns which the Board and BU Administration have raised regarding divestment, specifically “concerns that are associated with the decision to take a political position in the voice of the University as a whole” (President Brown’s petition response). While we acknowledge and are grateful for the University’s commitment to creating “an environment in which an academic community can productively consider, discuss, and debate a variety of viewpoints on social and political issues and that encourages freedom of inquiry” (Feld’s ACSRI letter), we submit that inaction is just as political of a stance as taking action. By not taking a ‘political’ stance on divestment we are simply taking the equally political stance that continuing to profit from climate destruction is conscionable. Additionally, we feel that the University already has taken a stance on this issue, and one we commend, in its pledge to “avoid on a best efforts basis investments in coal and tar sands”.
Furthermore, independent of the moral urgency of climate change, divestment from fossil fuels is the wise financial choice for Boston University moving forward. Today, a growing group of financial figures and institutions are advocating for divestment as a fiscally sound policy. Former Shell Chairman Mark Moody-Stuart, the Rockefeller Fund, and even HSBC Bank have all endorsed divestment from a financially sound perspective. We understand the stringent legal obligations implied by BU’s fiduciary duty, and we see this as a growing tide of evidence that fossil fuel divestment will help rather than hurt the University’s ability to meet those obligations.
Ultimately, divesting from companies continuing to search for fossil fuel reserves is the right call for Boston University today, and will remain so tomorrow. History will not be kind to the fossil fuel industry, and the Board should stand up for the future of its students, not the profits of a dying business model. This decision can only reflect well on our university down the road. As President Brown stated in the Report on the September Board decisions, “anthropogenic climate change caused by use of fossil fuel energy sources is possibly the largest and most complex challenge mankind will face during this century.” We ask that your consider our request for the Board of Trustees to revisit their fossil fuel investment policy decision and respond to us via email by March 22nd informing us of your decision on whether to put it back on the Board or Executive Board’s agenda. Boston University should lead us into tomorrow, not turn its back on our biggest challenges today.
Students, Faculty, and Alumni of DivestBU
Chairman Feld responded a few weeks later:
March 21, 2017
Dear Students, Faculty, and Alumni of DivestBU:
I am responding to your letter of March 6 in which you ask that the Board of Trustees revisit the decisions it made on the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), and in particular the Board’s response to Recommendation 1 (which, in brief, asked that the Board prohibit investment in companies that explore for new fossil-fuel reserves).
Members of the Board of Trustees are mindful of the concerns and analyses that undergirded the ACSRI’s recommendations. In our extensive deliberations we took these very much into account.
As President Brown has pointed out in his prior communications, we adopted two of the ACSRI’s three recommendations without qualification. Our response on Recommendation 1 was, as we would all acknowledge, more qualified. In his February 23 response to your communication, Dr. Brown offered an explanation regarding the complexity of the scientific and economic issues and the reality that there are tradeoffs and choices that, although not satisfying, are necessary. I believe that his assessment fairly describes the basis of the Board’s considered judgment (after much deliberation) with respect to the ACSRI’s divestment recommendation.
The Board’s decision-making on this matter has been deliberate and informed: we have heard and considered carefully the various arguments that have been made. President Brown has kept us informed about your appeals to him. The Board has fully endorsed his responses and is not prepared to reconsider its previous decisions.
You will recall that in our initial actions on the ACSRI’s recommendations we committed to review the issues of climate change and the University’s response at the five-year mark. That commitment, which is a matter of record, still stands.
The Board of Trustees is composed of very able, engaged, and committed individuals. You can be assured that we all take seriously the issues we face as an institution, as a nation, and as a global community. All fiduciary decisions are made in the context of our explicit and implicit obligations as an institution chartered to serve charitable, societal purposes.
Kenneth J. Feld
Chairman, Board of Trustees
This is all of the communication we have had with the BU administration at this point. We are saddened that student voices are not respected or prioritized, and we hope that the Board will reconsider it’s divestment decision soon.