Academia Shrugs: The Destabilizing Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

If you were an activist with a cause you wanted to push—a cause that’s long on emotion but short on evidence and requires legions of supporters ready to shout down anyone who dares to disagree—where would you want to focus your efforts?

Why, college campuses, of course. All the ingredients are available: large numbers of students with plenty of time on their hands for activism, a cadre of faculty members who are reflexively sympathetic to such causes, and administrators who hardly ever say “no” to “We’re saving the world!” movements. 

Indeed, academics are often integrally involved in such movements from the start. That is especially true of the various environmental movements, from Earth Day to global warming. 

Over the last few years, a new environmental movement has swarmed college campuses: a crusade to force America to abandon fossil fuels. The main tactic is to demand that college endowments divest their investments in fossil energy companies. Starting in 2010 at Swarthmore College, the movement now has active branches on more than 1,000 campuses around the U.S. 

Colleges have proven to be the ideal growth medium for fossil fuel activism. It has progressed so far at some schools that such activism is officially encouraged by giving academic credit for time devoted to working on campaigns to make their endowments divest their fossil fuel stocks. Some schools have encouraged student activism by giving academic credit for time devoted to working on campaigns to make their endowments divest their fossil fuel stocks. Some have obligingly required incoming students to read books that make apocalyptic claims about climate change. And some have even allowed student protesters to get away with disruptive stunts like taking over administrative offices.

A new report by the National Association of Scholars, “Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels,” is welcome because it shines a light on the excesses and especially the anti-intellectual nature of this campus phenomenon. Students, parents, alums, professors, and administrators should pay close attention to the report, just as miners needed to pay attention when their canaries started going unconscious.

Claims by environmental activists that the continued use of fossil fuels will cause grave harm to Earth and all its life might or might not be true. The NAS report doesn’t enter that controversy other than to let readers know that this is a field where experts do not all agree. Despite the rhetoric about “settled science,” there is robust debate over the impact of fossil fuel use and the likely consequences of shifting to “sustainable” energy sources.

Rather than weighing in on that debate, the NAS report simply makes the point that where people disagree, colleges should insist that students and faculty members treat the dispute in an academic manner. The report then demonstrates how the divestment movement blatantly violates academic norms.

“Advocates of fossil fuel divestment,” the report states, “sidestep real debates about energy and environmental policy and scorn discourse as needless delay. The campaign smears opponents and bullies dissenters. It treats colleges primarily as instruments of political activism, and only secondarily…as places that exist to cultivate the character of an inquiring mind and to pursue truth.”

The divestment campaign has two objectives. First and most visibly, it seeks to force colleges and universities to sell off their holdings of energy companies that produce and sell any kind of fossil fuel; second, it wants to make Americans believe that using oil, coal, and gas is irresponsible and immoral—to delegitimize the entire industry. 

As to the first objective, the NAS report notes that the campaign has so far had very limited success. As of the publication date, only 29 American colleges have divested, out of more than 4,700. Of those, most are very small schools, most with endowments of less than $100 million. Thus far, the biggest success the movement has had is with the Peralta Community College District in California and its $385 million endowment. 

Some schools have resisted, but still must at least offer interest in divestment. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been a target of the activists, but the managers of the $4.4 billion endowment decided early this year not to divest, but would look at “clean energy” options.

Moreover, we learn from the report that “Activists have played fast and loose with the definition of ‘divestment’ to suit their purposes.” To make the movement look effective, the activists count schools that have sold investments where fuel stocks were commingled with others, and even schools that merely promised not to invest any more in fuel stocks.

Leaders of the movement, most notably climate activist Bill McKibben, quietly acknowledge that forcing colleges to divest won’t have any financial impact on the fuel companies they want to close down. Many of the students committed to the campaigns probably think that making schools sell their shares in bad companies like Exxon somehow takes money away from them, but that just isn’t how the stock market works. (Activist movements often do best by recruiting people who don’t know much.)

Demanding divestment, however, is mostly a side-show. The movement’s ultimate goal is to make Americans believe that we can and indeed must switch away from using fossil fuels and embrace “sustainable” energy instead. 

It is in that effort that the movement reveals its true character. Rather than merely trying to persuade students and others that McKibben apocalyptic view is right, the divestment zealots often resort to ugly tactics that have no place in an educational setting.

Part of that is the Orwellian perversion of English to demonize anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with movement claims and demands. The report notes for example, that at Swarthmore the administrators met with the activists 25 times and were nevertheless labeled “oppressors,” “climate change deniers,” and “oligarchs.” Education requires respect and civility toward those who disagree with you, but the divestment movement thrives by fomenting a mindset of tribal hostility in college students.

Worse still, it has embraced the idea that debate is pointless and dissenters have no right to be heard. Students who dare to argue against any aspect of the anti-fossil fuel religion are apt to be shouted down and demonized. Regrettably, college administrators have seldom had the backbone to rebuke those tactics.

This fall has not seen as many divestment protests as in previous years; race and gender politics have had center stage. But we may merely be in one of those “calm before the storm” periods. Next spring, we read, will be “escalation season” across the country, with numerous protests and sit-ins planned for March and April.

The report offers some sound advice for students, for faculty members, and for administrators. 

Students are admonished to keep an open mind because they “are typically exposed only to the claims of activists, inside and outside class.” Also, they should fight against pressure to go along with a movement that is supposedly overwhelmingly popular. Think for yourself rather than giving in to groupthink.

Faculty members ought to teach their subjects rather than repeating clichés and slogans. They should also fight against groupthink (no matter what their own beliefs) by insisting that students grapple with hard questions by examining competing arguments and evidence.

Finally, administrators should enforce order and uphold civil discourse. However fervently people believe something, educational institutions must serve as models for dispassionate inquiry. “The university cannot perform its role of moderator if it is compromised by its own political advocacy,” the report correctly observes.

American higher education is in a precarious position. Over the last decade, many have come to doubt that whatever educational value it imparts is worth the high cost. And over the last couple of turmoil-filled months, many more have come to see our campuses as places in the thrall of “cry-bully” students. If higher education leaders allow the divestment movement to keep acting like a bull in the college china shop, they will make that position still more precarious.