N.C. colleges should stop profiting from climate destruction

Warren Wilson College (above) divested from fossil fuels.
Warren Wilson College (above) divested from fossil fuels. Warren Wilson College

There are countless arguments against the trend in higher education to divest, in full or in part, from fossil fuels – “they’re rushing to judgement,” “divestment doesn’t really impact these industries,” and “this will hurt your returns in the long run.”

My fellow board members of North Carolina’s private colleges and universities likely had or are having conversations about this issue. They could also be seeing the numerous student protests encouraging divestment taking place on campuses like James Madison University or the University of California. Despite the questions, protests and litigation, I have learned through my experience at Warren Wilson College in Asheville that collaboration can and does happen to achieve a responsible, principled divestment and investment policy. It’s time the other N.C. private higher education institutions use this model to do the same.

For Warren Wilson College, divestment may have seemed inevitable. It is the highest ranked Southern college among the Princeton Review’s “Top 50 Green Colleges” and has been named a Sierra magazine “Cool School” for as long as the list has existed. The college is also known to have a very activist-minded student body, and protests could have happened. However, the lack of protests can be credited to the college’s collaborative approach to answering the call for divestment.

Faculty and staff passed a resolution this year in favor of divesting a nearly $55 million endowment, and a committee of students focused on educating themselves and allying with the board of trustees. The student committee had numerous meetings to convince the board that divestment was not only the right approach from a mission-standpoint, but a responsible one – given global indexes without fossil fuels perform as well as or better than standard indexes. The board was impressed with the passionate yet measured approach with which the students pitched divestment strategy.

Knowing it could still meet its fiduciary duties to the college following further insight from investment advisors, the board adopted a divestment resolution. A Responsible Investment Policy was also created to direct our holdings to ethical companies demonstrating commitment to environmental sustainability, community and economic development, diversity in hiring and transparency in corporate governance.

Warren Wilson is not the only private college or university to join this national and international movement infusing mission, culture and values into a naturally evolving policy. In mid-September, research firm Arabella Advisors announced that “436 institutions and 2,040 individuals across 43 countries and representing $2.6 trillion in assets have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.” Less than 30 U.S. colleges, including Georgetown University, Stanford University, Syracuse University and the University of Hawaii, have at least partially divested from fossil fuels, according to the organization Fossil Free.

This year, Brevard College, located less than 55 miles from Warren Wilson’s campus, became the first college in the Southeast, and therefore the state, to divest. North Carolina is a leader in the divestiture movement. To continue this trend, our fellow private colleges and universities must stop profiting from climate destruction. It’s not a choice; it’s an obligation.

I challenge all N.C. private higher education institutions to take a stand and make a principled decision to divest. Embrace requests from this generation of students, collaborate and take a stand about the future of the planet. This is campus activism at its best.

Culpepper is an attorney living in Charlotte and an alumna and trustee of Warren Wilson College.