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Chatham University Moves Some Endowment Investments From Fossil Fuels To Green Companies

Bruce Damonte
Chatham University
Chatham University's Eden Hall campus houses its Falk School of Sustainability and includes environmentally friendly features such as solar panels.

Chatham University is inching closer to divesting its $80 million endowment fund of investments in the fossil fuel industry.

At a recent meeting of the investment committee of the Board of Trustees, members voted to approve two new investment opportunities that are specifically aimed at excluding fossil fuels and supporting sustainable energy.

Chatham’s Senior Vice President of Finance, Walt Fowler, said reducing the university’s support of fossil fuel companies is in line with its goal of pursuing sustainability in every part of its operations.

“It’s important to us ethically, because we believe the world needs to reduce their use of fossil fuels,” Fowler said.

At the end of this year, the university will replace a hedge fund with a private equity fund focused exclusively on supporting wind power.

It will also swap investment in a standard equity fund, which includes fossil fuel companies, for a BNY Mellon fund that is filtered specifically for green companies but matches the performance of the current fund.

“If you have an alternative out there of a fund that actually filters for all those things, and the … market performance is the same, statistically, why not pick the more sustainable alternative?” Fowler said.

Fowler estimates that with those changes, 96 percent of its endowment will be fossil fuel-free. He said about 5 percent of the fund is currently invested in fossil fuels.

Students have pressured Chatham to completely divest of fossil fuels. Maria Duarte is a senior psychology major and co-founder of the student-led divestment campaign. She said while the investment committee’s recent decision is a positive step, it doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s not divestment in any way, shape or form for us, so we do want to push the administration further and we want to see an actual plan,” she said.

Duarte called the University “hypocritical” for presenting itself as sustainability-focused while simultaneously investing in fossil fuel companies.

The Chatham University Sustainable Impact Team is calling on the University to freeze investments in fossil fuel companies, immediately divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, divest from all fossil fuels within five years and create an “exact timeline” for its plans to fully divest from fossil fuels.

Sophomore biology major Fernando Soriana said it’s a moral issue, and likens the campaign to the 1980s campaign to divest from South African companies as a way to oppose apartheid.

“The reason that we want to pursue divestment as a group is because we want to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry,” Soriano said.

Fowler said complete divestment is the goal, and said that is getting easier as investment firms recognize the demand for sustainable funds.

“We’re seeing more and more products out there like we just invested in that actually fit that mold of sustainability and fossil fuel-free,” Fowler said. “The investment companies are seeing a market opportunity, so they’re crafting these mutual funds that are filtered to remove fossil fuel companies.”

Dozens of institutions of higher education around the world have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities.

Locally, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has made such a commitment.

The Glassblock reported in December that the city of Pittsburgh may seek to divest its pension fund from fossil fuels in the next 10 to 15 years.