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How Endowment Funds Can Engage with Student Activists

As university endowment funds work to forge more sustainable portfolios, many are turning their efforts to building consensus with a variety of stakeholders. One of the most important constituencies is students, especially at schools with a politically active student body. Ignoring student engagement can result in negative publicity and signal to the community that the university does not take sustainability seriously. Embracing collaboration with students, though, allows endowments to draw on the creativity, energy, and optimism these stakeholders bring to the table.

Engaging with Student Activists

Taking a cue from the campus protests of the 1980s demanding universities divest from holdings in apartheid-era South Africa, students have banded together to work for divestment from companies and industries deemed to support harmful activities. According to the Wall Street Journal, the movement for fossil fuel divestment at universities started around 2012 with help from environmental advocacy groups like 350.org. Since then, student protests and other measures have pushed a growing number of endowment funds to either cease making new direct investments in oil and gas or to divest from the industry entirely.

For example, in October 2020 Cambridge University committed to divesting from direct and indirect fossil fuel holdings by 2030 and making significant investments in renewable energy by 2025. In May, the University of California announced it had completely divested from fossil fuels—the largest such university divestment.

While many of the headlines have zeroed in on fossil fuels, student divestment demands have focused on a wide array of areas, including holdings in Puerto Rican debt and private prisons. Since 2017, for example, Harvard students have advocated for the school’s endowment funds to divest from companies that support state and federal prisons.

Successful Engagement Tactics

Building a consensus and engaging with students might not always result in endowments agreeing to all demands made. However, it can go a long way toward building a more open relationship of trust. These efforts may involve several approaches aimed at creating a deeper understanding of the issues and what both sides have to offer.

One strategy is to build a campus-wide dialogue through town halls, lecture series, articles in campus publications, and frequent meetings. For example, investment leaders at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College allowed students to make their case before the investment committee in 2017. The divestment subcommittee that was formed as a result made recommendations to the board in 2018 to propose a fossil fuel divestment policy.

Another tactic is to establish a committee on investor responsibility within the endowment governance structure. This group can act as an intermediary between decision-makers and university stakeholders, including not just students but also staff, faculty, and alumni. Such a committee can encourage the exchange of research and knowledge and build trust among the larger community.

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