- 05/06/2014 by Michael Wines (New York Times)

Stanford University announced Tuesday that it would divest its $18.7 billion endowment of stock in coal-mining companies, becoming the first major university to lend support to a nationwide campaign to purge endowments and pension funds of fossil fuel investments.

The university said it acted in accordance with internal guidelines that allow its trustees to consider whether “corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury” when choosing investments. Coal’s status as a major source of carbon pollution linked to climate change persuaded the trustees to remove companies “whose principal business is coal” from their investment portfolio, the university said. 

Stanford’s associate vice president for communications, Lisa Lapin, said the decision covers about 100 companies worldwide that derive the majority of their revenue from coal extraction. Not all of those companies are in the university’s investment portfolio, whose structure is private, she said. Over all, the university’s coal holdings are a small fraction of its endowment.

“But a small percentage is still a substantial amount of money,” she added. 

The trustees’ decision carries more symbolic than financial weight, but it is a major victory for a rapidly growing student-led divestment movement that is now active at roughly 300 universities. 

At least 11 small universities have elected to remove fossil-fuel stocks from their endowments, but none approaches Stanford’s prestige or national influence.  Tuesday’s decision seems likely to increase the pressure on other major universities to follow suit.

Among other universities, Harvard has resisted student pressure for divestment, and one student was arrested on Thursday after pro-divestment activists blockaded the entrance to the school’s administrative offices.

Stanford’s trustees acted after Fossil Free Stanford, the campus branch of the movement, petitioned the board to re-evaluate the university’s holdings in energy companies, Ms. Lapin said.

Yari Greaney, 20, a Fossil Free Stanford organizer, said the group was “very proud of Stanford taking this leadership position.” Nationally, leaders of the divestment movement praised the school for its decision. 

As a global institution, Stanford “knows the havoc that climate change creates around our planet,” Bill McKibben, the president and co-founder of the environmental group, said in a statement. “Other forward-looking and internationally minded institutions will follow, I’m sure.”

Maura Cowley, the executive director of Energy Action Coalition, an assemblage of groups active on climate change issues, called the decision “a huge, huge victory.” 

“Their decision, coming from such a major university and from such a huge endowment, shows that the coal industry and other fossil fuel industries are quickly becoming relics of the past,” she said in an interview.

The trustees began studying divestment after Fossil Free Stanford petitioned them to re-evaluate their holdings of energy companies. An advisory panel that included students, faculty, staff and alumni spent roughly five months studying the issue before recommending that coal stocks be sold, Deborah DeCotis, the chairwoman of the board’s special committee on investment responsibility, said in an interview.

Among other deciding factors, Ms. DeCotis said, the panel noted that coal produces the most carbon per British thermal unit of any widely used fossil fuel, that practical alternatives to burning coal are available, and that the university was not dependent on coal or coal-derived products.

Other fossil fuels did not meet some of those criteria, but “this is not the ending point. It’s a process,” she said. “We’re a research institute, and as the technology develops to make other forms of alternative energy sources available, we will continue to review and make decisions about things we should not be invested in. Don’t interpret this as a pass on other things.”

Ms. Lapin said the school is already asking its investment advisers to review endowment holdings and sell stocks of coal companies. The order covers mutual funds with coal stocks as well as investments in individual companies, she said. 

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Members of Fossil Free Stanford (


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