CWRU completes fossil fuel divestment from its public holdings

Shreyas Banerjee, Life Editor

After years of pressure, Case Western Reserve University has finally taken a step toward complete divestment from fossil fuel companies. On Tuesday, Nov. 30, President Eric Kaler announced that the public side of the university’s endowment had completely divested from its investments in fossil fuel companies. The university did not indicate the size of this divestment in this announcement; however, a previous plan indicated that $3 million in public holdings was planned to be eliminated. CWRU’s remaining fossil fuel investment—around $50 million, according to Kaler’s announcement—is a small but significant fraction of its $1.85 billion endowment.

Universities often use endowments to bolster their finances, putting charitable donations and other sources of income into a pool of investments that gradually generate income over time. The passive income generated by these investments often fund essential campus operations or go towards capital improvements such as new buildings. Historically, CWRU has invested in fossil fuel companies as part of their portfolio, but has come under increased criticism over time due to the destructive nature of fossil fuels. Decades of research have shown that carbon emissions from fossil fuel usage will have a long-lasting negative impact on our climate, accelerating temperature increases that will ultimately lead to inconceivable damage to this planet’s ecosystems. With 100 fossil fuel companies causing over 70% of global emissions since 1988, students have legitimately claimed that the university investing in them is a moral hazard.

In 2014, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) passed a resolution calling for “the president and board of trustees of [CWRU] to divest the university’s endowment from publicly traded fossil fuel companies.” No significant action was taken until April of 2020, when interim President Scott Cowen committed to divesting from such companies by the end of the decade. Kaler recommitted to this course of action early on in his administration, with backing from the board of trustees. 

President Kaler’s statement noted that due to contractual obligations it could take “several years” to fully divest on the private side of the portfolio. In remarks made to USG this September, Kaler then said that the process could happen within three years—a marked reduction from the initial estimation of complete divestment by 2030.

“It is important to me that our actions align with our mission to be a high-impact research university where humanity, science and technology meet to create a just and thriving world,” Kaler’s statement read.

Sunrise CWRU, a climate-advocacy student organization that has worked for two years to pressure the university administration to divest from such companies, expressed strong support for the university’s actions.

“When we force institutions such as CWRU to confront the impact of materially and symbolically supporting the deception and destruction of the fossil fuel industry, they are no longer able to ignore its glaring inconsistency with their self-stated core values. This victory is another step towards revoking the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate,” Emily Bence, a fourth-year systems biology major and member of Sunrise CWRU, said in a statement released by Sunrise CWRU.

While this is a major step, continued action remains to be taken to ensure the university fulfills its promises.