The moral and ethical case for divestment is a strong one. Here, we present telling lessons from the Columbia University campaign, which faces opposition from a distant and disengaged president, and moral arguments for overcoming that opposition.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has publicly stated, “The general approach is that we will not put restrictions on investments unless there is a strong and overwhelming case that we’re assisting highly immoral and unethical activities.” Citing the endowment’s primary purpose of funding the university’s operations, he asserted that divestment should only be used in the most extreme circumstances.
If society’s inability to address its fossil fuel addiction and the dumping of billions of tons of CO2 to an already overburdened atmosphere isn’t an extreme circumstance, then we don’t know what is.
The best response to President Bollinger’s comments came from Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with Columbia, in her June 10, 2014 announcement that Union will be divesting from 100% of the fossil fuel investments in its $108 million endowment, about 1/80 the size of Columbia’s endowment. In her statement (available here in its entirety in her Time Magazine Online op-ed) titled, “Union Becomes the World’s First Seminary to Divest from Fossil Fuels“, she stated the following:
“At Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, we have a particular call to live out our values in the world. In accordance with that call, Our Board of Trustees voted unanimously today to begin divesting from the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels, becoming the first seminary in the world to take this dramatic step in the fight against global climate change.
“As a seminary we are familiar with the scriptural warning that ‘the wages of sin is death,’ and this could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels. As vulnerable communities have been swallowed by rising shorelines, as potable water has become a commodity of increasing rarity, as hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by violent weather, it is ever clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing—or as Christians would say, profoundly sinful.
“This concerns us deeply, and we are actively committed to finding new ways to participate in healing our wounded creation. We believe that the divestment of our endowment from fossil fuel companies is one small step in this direction.
“This was not an easy decision for us. We depend on our endowment to support Union’s educational mission, and are committed to ensuring that our endowment can continue to support needed scholarships and faculty positions.
“Fortunately, we can do this and remain fiscally responsible to our students, staff, faculty, and members of the Union community. We were heartened to learn that over the past two decades, a portfolio that had left out fossil fuel companies would have returned, on average, only six tenths of one percent less. This is a small financial loss when compared to the importance of our moral statement.
“We realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat. That said, it is on moral grounds that we pursue divestment, and on theological grounds that we trust it matters. The Christian term for this reckless hope in the hope of God to use our decisions of conscience to transform the world is resurrection, and I have faith in the power of resurrection.”
The validity of the ethical and moral case for divestment could not have been more clearly stated. President Bollinger’s remarks are thus specious unless one views them from this perhaps different perspective that a financial sacrifice of about six tenths of one percent justifies ignoring the extreme moral and ethical imperative of living our values in the world, and holding the well-being of future generations of Columbians, humans, and all life on Earth in higher regard than some missed opportunity to maximize financial gain.