Alumni Column: It’s Time for Colgate to Get Out of the Fossil Fuel Industry

Colgate University has the moral obligation to divest its $925 million endowment fund from any ownership position in the fossil fuel industry. Ownership in such assets conflicts with both the moral mission of the university and fiduciary mission of the endowment—the future is renewable, and Colgate must move toward it with all deliberate speed. Until a plan to divest is in place, parents, alumni and students should curtail any giving to Colgate University.

It would be cynical to say that Colgate University is an investment fund with a school attached, but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. The vast size of the endowment means that the societal impact of decisions made by the Colgate Finance Department dwarfs any impact made by the academic arm of Colgate University. While the University is making very public investments in carbon accounting and neutrality, far less public and far more capital-heavy investments are being made in the fossil fuel industry. As long as the University’s endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry, Colgate will continue to have a vested interest in preventing any legislation that is proportionate to the climate change crisis. While Colgate funds the Department of Environmental Studies and Office of Sustainability without a divestment strategy, the Colgate endowment can reasonably be linked to fracking operations, oil rigs, gas drilling, oil sands operations, etc. and the accompanying lobbying and misinformation that make sure these increasingly outmoded operations remain legal and profitable. This is in direct contradiction to the work of Colgate’s students and faculty.

Moral case aside, there is a compelling financial case for divesting from fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources continue to surpass carbon-based energy sources in cost competitiveness in more and more segments of the market, and this change is only accelerating as renewable technologies improve. Even without federal legislation, states and communities are making environmental and public health commitments that are negatively impacting the financial outlook of the fossil fuel industry. It’s a rare moment when fiduciary duty and moral duty coincide. I urge the university to take advantage of it.

Colgate University, the finance department and the board of directors are not eager to have a public conversation or make public commitments regarding the contents of the endowment—just google “paradise papers Colgate” or try to get anyone on the record about endowment holdings. Without public pressure, the endowment and Colgate’s investments will remain secretive, with administrators happy to operate out of the public eye. Secrecy in investment strategies might very well be rational, but the lack of oversight means that university benefactors have zero visibility into the way contributions are invested. Until we are granted that visibility with specific responses from the Finance and Administration division and the board of trustees, current and future alumni should assume that the fund is not living up to its fiscal and moral obligations. The status quo has been kind to those administering and overseeing the endowment; change won’t come easy.

I’m calling on the Colgate community to join me in suspending all donations to Colgate University until it ends fossil fuel assets. We must force this public conversation to ensure that Colgate University as a fiscal entity are held to the same standard of truth befitting our pride as a community.