The University of Oxford announced today that their endowment, the Oxford Funds, does not now and will not in the future hold direct investments in coal and tar-sands oil companies.
This announcement, exciting as it is, still strikes some activists as insufficient, since it does not commit the Oxford Funds to divest completely from all forms of carbon energy. And the University’s statement, by speaking of “direct investments” as opposed to the separate accounts and special funds preferred by the endowment’s management team, might just be ducking the question: The Guardian says that “companies held via mixed investment funds are exempted”, and Bloomberg Business says that Oxford “will make what it does own more clear in its annual report due next month”.
In the official 350.org press release about the announcement, Bill McKibben said that “if anyone thought [Oxford’s] great age might keep it from shaping the future, this decision should prove them wrong”. And, of course, a university as ancient as Oxford ought to be considering how it might shape the future, shouldn’t it?
There’s a story, actually, involving one of the colleges that make up the University: The New College, which was founded in 1379 and is now the eighth-oldest of the 38 existing colleges. According to the story, in the late 19th century, insect damage was discovered in the giant beams supporting the roof on the College’s Great Hall. The College had an official “College Forester”, whose job was to manage the large tracts of woodland owned by the College; when consulted, he spoke of a grove of oaks planted for the purpose when the College was founded, five hundred years earlier. (A text version of the story can be found here; a short video here.)
The story is false, apparently: the College’s archivist has pointed out that the roof restoration in question, done in 1863-65, used timber from land donated to the College in 1441, seventy years after the hall was built, and the foresters didn’t designate specific trees for specific purposes. But the idea behind the story remains important. The idea that an institution could plan, at its inception, for a need that wouldn’t surface for five centuries tells us something about the time scale appropriate to such an organization. Shouldn’t the trustees managing the assets held by college and university endowments around the world be ready and willing to invest those assets as though they were planning for as long as possible? Isn’t that their fiduciary duty: to preserve the institution forever?
Today, though, we find that too many institutions are trying merely to maximize the current value of their institutional wealth, and ignoring their long-term obligations. We think it’s clear that investments in coal, oil, and gas can really only be short-term — those companies will not be able to continue with “business as usual” for much longer. In fact, humanity can’t allow them to continue to operate the way they have, because of the impact they’re having on the climate. So why should those institutions which are designed to last for centuries continue to take the risks associated with investing in companies that are not?
The trustees tasked with overseeing the management of the Oxford Funds have considered these matters, they assure us all. We applaud their first step toward divestment, and look forward to seeing them taking more steps in this direction soon. If they can’t divest from all carbon energy companies, perhaps they can make an explicit commitment to participate in shareholder engagement efforts, to help those companies change their business models. And we encourage colleges and universities that may have less than a thousand years’ history to preserve to engage as well — the future of those institutions, and perhaps the whole world, depends on it.