University Community Dialogue Leads to Change on Fossil Fuel Investments at Georgetown University

When Georgetown University Chief Investment Officer (CIO) Michael Barry reflected on the board of directors’ decision to divest coal mining companies from the school’s endowment, he was most impressed by the willingness of university leaders to engage in this conversation. When students raised concerns about endowment investments in fossil fuel companies being in conflict with concerns about climate change and our faith call to care for creation, eventually forming a student group named Georgetown University Fossil Free (GUFF), they found university leaders interested in dialogue from the president’s office to the board of directors. While the eventual decision fell short of GUFF’s desires of divestment from the largest 200 fossil fuel companies, the university community is more aware, educated and active on the issue. While others are presently studying the issue, Georgetown is the only Jesuit higher education institution in the country to have altered its endowment investments because of climate change concerns.

In the historical environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urgently appeals for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet (Laudato Si’, 14). In addition to the important contributions through research, education and physical plant improvements, Jesuit higher education institutions should engage in this dialogue in relation to their endowment investments, considering how financial assets and resources might best be leveraged to address the issue of climate change. The existence of a newly empowered Committee on Investing and Social Responsibility (CISR) bridged student concerns with the endowment to decision-makers on the board of directors. Comprised of university faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, presidential appointees and staff from the investment office, CISR had existed for decades with the single purpose of voting proxy ballots for companies held in the university’s endowment portfolio (One element of being a socially responsible investor is for institutional shareholders to vote on a host of governance and other issues in advance of a company’s annual shareholder meeting). In 2013, CISR’s mandate was expanded to be a place to discuss social concerns related to investments as raised by a member of the university community. CISR became a vehicle for discussion and deliberation with the capacity to send an investment concern to the board for further consideration.

GUFF members were the first group to test CISR’s newfound advisory role. After GUFF sent a letter to Georgetown President Jack DeGioia outlining their concerns and proposal to divest from the largest 200 oil, gas and coal companies, CISR began a deliberation process. GUFF members met with a wide range of university leaders including President DeGioia, his chief of staff, CIO Barry and members of the board of directors. Fr. Joe Parkes, SJ, a Georgetown director and member of the board working group on socially responsible investment (SRI), met with GUFF members and in reporting to the board recalled the good discussions about the challenges of fossil fuels and climate change and the importance of energy to lift people up out of poverty. “The board has been very interested in these issues,” said Fr. Parkes, SJ. “The students are intelligent, prepared and mission driven. The board wants to work with GUFF and university stakeholders to be socially responsible in our investments and ensure a financial return on the endowment,” added Fr. Parkes, SJ.

GUFF students meet with President DeGioia.
As a community, stakeholders explored the issue extensively. “The process was bumpy, tense and ultimately was successful,” said CIO Barry, “because the university was willing to engage with these students, faculty, board members, alumni, and experts in the field.” GUFF continues to push Georgetown to consider a fuller divestment from fossil fuels, but they are also calling for the university to develop a socially responsible investment policy, greater transparency on endowment investments, evaluation of the composition of CISR, and institutionalizing the board of trustees SRI working group.

Barry sees the divestment from coal companies as a compromise and a starting point. The investment office staff continue to explore ways the university can pursue proactive engagement in socially responsible investing. Barry noted that the office is looking for impact investing opportunities that offer both a social and financial return. They are integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues into their investment analysis, recognizing that companies will be more successful and offer positive financial returns if they are accounting for these issues in their business models. Georgetown is also considering becoming a signatory of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, adopting a set of investment guidelines that more fully incorporate ESG issues into their investment practices.

As our institutions engage in this dialogue on fossil fuel investments, participants are called to respect that different institutions and communities will develop their own strategies as a faith response to the ecological and climate crisis. Some will choose to engage in fossil fuel companies as active shareholders, others will look to reallocate assets away from fossil fuel companies, and hopefully all will make a commitment to explore investments in renewable energy. Developing a uniform strategy across institutions is secondary to a prayerful consideration and inspired and sustained response to the climate crisis. Jesuit higher education institutions are called to embrace the Ignatian principle of presuming the best in one another as a way of proceeding. Engaged as an entire university community from students to the president’s office, from administrators to governing boards, Jesuit higher education should discern ways to respond to the crisis of climate change and the endowment investments that enable them to thrive.

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