With new investment policies, board adopts ‘wait and see attitude’

December 7, 2018

After adopting new policies on investments in fossil fuels late last month, the Board of Trustees will take a “wait and see attitude” to assess how these policies have affected Brandeis’ endowment at the end of three years, according to President Ron Liebowitz.

The policy changes come after students and faculty have pressed the board for years to remove investments of endowment money from the fossil fuel industry, arguing Brandeis should take a lead in the fight against climate change.

These new policies will suspend further investments in fossil fuel private limited partnerships, which focus on “deriving profit from the exploration and production of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas,” according to an email from Liebowitz announcing the policy changes.

Existing investments in these kinds of partnerships—which amount to approximately six percent of endowment investments or about $63 million—will be allowed to run the course of their typical life cycles. These partnerships have an average of a 10-year life cycle, according to Chief Investment Officer Nicholas Warren, who described the “overall portfolio” as “mature, with many funds reaching the later stages of their life cycle.”

“Therefore, we expect it to slowly wind down over the next five to seven years,” he said in the statement shared with The Hoot in an email from Julie Jette, director of Media Relations.

A penalty of at least 20 percent would incur to get out of fossil fuel private limited funds early since they must be sold at a discount, according to an email from Warren.

Commingled funds, a type of fund in which stocks in fossil fuels are lumped with stocks in other industries, will not be affected by new policies. According to Warren, 2.6 percent of endowment funds are invested in fossil fuel holdings entangled in these commingled funds.

Liebowitz stated in his email announcing the policy changes that divesting from commingled funds “would be imprudent and place the financial well-being of our endowment in jeopardy, and in particular funding that provides a significant amount of support to student financial aid and endowed professorships.”

Changes to investment policies will be reviewed by the Board of Trustees in three years, according to Liebowitz.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in three years. I think the board’s going to look at all the intended and unintended consequences of making this decision,” Liebowitz said.

Liebowitz stated that the Board of Trustees understands climate change and its link to fossil fuels. “Where the range of opinions was,” he said, “was about how to best address the issues.”

Some members on the board expressed concerns about how investments made in lieu of investing in fossil fuel private limited partnerships would perform, according to Liebowitz. There were also concerns that new policies might limit “the flexibility and the amount of tools at the disposal of our investment office,” he said.

Following the board’s vote to implement new policies, student and faculty advocates for divestment from fossil fuels have continued to call for full divestment of university funds from fossil fuels, including from commingled funds. In interviews with The Hoot, many advocates said the new policies are a good first step but do not do enough to address the threat posed by climate change.

Liebowitz questioned whether full divestment would have an impact on climate change.

“Let’s just say we divested tomorrow of one hundred percent, would we then have an impact on climate change?” Liebowitz said in an interview, “Those stocks that we sell are most likely to be bought up in a second and have literally no impact.”

Liebowitz stated that focusing on Brandeis’ own carbon footprint was more important than fully divesting from fossil fuels, saying “it’s most important to address immediately our own carbon footprint, that’s like the first priority.”

Since 2015, Brandeis has reduced its carbon footprint by 12.6 percent and remains committed to a 15 percent reduction by 2020, according to Liebowitz. These reductions have included many efforts such as measures to increase energy efficiency in campus buildings and reduce natural gas usage in the university’s central heating plant, according to a BrandeisNow article on the subject.

In his email announcing the new investment policies, Liebowitz also stated that Brandeis will make no direct investments in companies “whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation.”

In a document posted to Facebook directly responding to Liebowitz’s email, Brandeis Climate Justice (BCJ), a student group which has led calls for divestment for nearly six years, stated that this particular policy is neither new nor impactful.

Liebowitz confirmed that it is true that Brandeis has not directly invested in coal for several years but stated that the policy “does promise not to do it.” He pointed to the Trump administration’s favorable stance on the coal industry as reason why promising not to invest in coal was significant.

Prior to the vote by the board to institute new investment policies, students from BCJ gathered the signatures of 215 students and 39 campus organizations on an open letter addressed to Liebowitz and the Board of Trustees. The letter urged the board to vote “yes” on divestment from fossil fuels. BCJ students have since said that the new policies by the board do not amount to a “yes” on divestment.

The vote on issues of divestment has been anticipated since last spring, when it was originally promised to occur within 60 days. After delays, which pushed the vote to November, the board adopted the new investment policies with a vote during their November meeting with Liebowitz.

“I think that the compromise the board reached represents a really significant step toward full divestment which is, you know, our ultimate goal,” Claudia Davis ’19, a member of BCJ told The Hoot after the board’s decision. “I would say that the board failed to meet that sense of urgency and that sense of care for the issue,” she added.

Earlier this week, a banner that read “Baby steps are nice… We demand divestment” was hung from the third floor of the Shapiro Campus Center. The banner accredited itself to the Brandeis Mountain Club.

More than 40 educational institutions in the U.S. have divested from fossil fuels in some manner, according to a database on gofossilfree.org, which contains divestment actions happening worldwide. The site labels organizations which have taken action with a “divestment type” depending on the commitments they have pledged.

Twenty-eight U.S. educational institutions have pledged “full” divestment, which means committing “to divest (direct ownership, shares, commingled mutual funds containing shares, corporate bonds or any assets classes) from any fossil fuel company (coal, oil, natural gas),” according to the site.

Other divestment types include “partial” and those classified by divestment from specific types of fossil fuels such as “coal only.” Brandeis is not in the database which gofossilfree.org claims is based on public information. It is unclear which category Brandeis would fit, if any, with the new investment policies.

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