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December 06, 2012 1:00 PM Gas Money

By Daniel Luzer

The way a university spends its endowment funds have historically been a source for much concern from students. While endowment investments are very complicated, involving a vast array of companies and plans, student protests often focus on certain companies or industries, particularly those doing business in politically controversial places.

Endowments in companies operating in apartheid era South Africa sparked protests on college campuses in the 1980s. More recently, Berkeley students protested investment in companies in Israel.

The latest protests involve fuel. According to an article by Justin Gillis in the New York Times:

In recent weeks, college students on dozens of campuses have demanded that university endowment funds rid themselves of coal, oil and gas stocks. The students see it as a tactic that could force climate change, barely discussed in the presidential campaign, back onto the national political agenda.
“We’ve reached this point of intense urgency that we need to act on climate change now, but the situation is bleaker than it’s ever been from a political perspective,” said William Lawrence, a Swarthmore senior from East Lansing, Mich.

The idea here is apparently to use the investment discussion as a trigger for change. By forcing American colleges to confront the money they make from oil and natural gas, students might force the country to talk seriously about combatting global warming.

A few colleges have already agreed to get out of fuel investments. Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts have agreed to sell their fossil fuels stocks. No college with a large endowment, however, has agreed to divest from fuels. According to the author many administrators at schools with endowments beyond $1 billion see “the demand skeptically, saying it would undermine their goal of maximum returns in support of education.”

While many colleges have been involved with “campus greening” efforts for years (natural food, solar panels, compost) until recently most Americans didn’t see merely investing in companies like BP or Exxon Mobil as any sort of moral problem.

But, as Bill McKibben, an advocate now touring a country urging colleges to change their investment strategies, presents it, the “fossil fuel industry [is] an enemy that must be defeated,” because the industry, after all, uses “money and political influence to block climate action in Washington.”

McKibben, and many activists on campuses, apparently want to make fossil fuel stock the moral equivalent of tobacco company stock.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer