CHARLOTTESVILLE — In April, campus environmental activists scored their first major victory when leaders at the University of Mary Washington agreed to pull out of the school's investment in fossil fuel companies.
Activists at the University of Virginia are hoping to emulate their success, but they could have a steeper mountain to climb.
The divestment movement has popped up at college campuses across the country, including all of the major institutions in Virginia. Advocates want colleges and universities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry — the companies they see as the primary contributors to climate change.
"We think it's the primary crisis of our generation right now," said Maria DeHart, a third-year UVa student and member of Divest UVa. "We already see the effects of it around the world with droughts and floods. And it's going to get worse."
For the past two years, Divest UVa has lobbied members of the administration and the Board of Visitors. Though members have participated in student protests of tuition increases and financial aid cuts, when it comes to the divestment issue, they have opted for a softer, behind-the-scenes approach, preferring presentations and meetings to sitins and protests.
Their patience seemed to pay off last month, when the Board of Visitors agreed to begin discussions about the issue in committee. Board member John G. Macfarlane said he wasn't sure whether the plan is financially feasible, but it could be worth checking into.
"It's clear the students are passionate about it," Macfarlane said at the board's annual retreat. "I think it's worth looking into it."
Rector William H. Goodwin said he is hesitant to tell the University Investment Management Company — a private entity that manages UVa's $7.5 billion endowment — how to do its job. Still, Goodwin agreed a discussion would be worthwhile.
Divest UVa's first priority will be getting UVIMCO to conduct an analysis on the financial effect of fossil fuel divestment — to see how much, if any, money the university would lose by divesting from energy companies.
A similar analysis by UMW showed the university would not be significantly affected by a "99 percent divestment," defined as divestment from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. Complete divestment from fossil fuels is nearly impossible, according to the report, because so many sectors of the economy are dependent on fossil fuels.
"In an economy dependent upon oil, coal and natural gas, identifying which companies might have fossil fuel-related business activities can be difficult," reads the report, released in March.
DeHart acknowledged it's "really tough to pinpoint what a fossil fuel company is." Airlines, for example, are major polluters, although they may not fit neatly into the category of "fossil fuel companies." More important, she said, is the message it would send.
"It's more of a social statement than trying to hurt these companies financially," she said.
Drew Shannon, a member of Divest UMW, said he knew activists would have to help convince university leadership divestment wouldn't hurt institutions' finances. But the group sees it as an ethical issue, rather than a financial one, he said.
"Those investments aren't making a whole lot of profit right now," Shannon said. "Our argument is that regardless of the profit motive, we have an obligation to use our endowment in a moral way."