The Shameful Position of a Great University: Why Oxford Must Divest

Confronted about its ongoing investments in the industry that is most responsible for driving the world to the brink of catastrophe, Oxford had this reply: 'Get lost.' (Photo: Divest Oxford)

The Shameful Position of a Great University: Why Oxford Must Divest

The prestigious institution loves to ask its alumni for donations, but is not so keen to be criticized over its financial ties to the fossil fuel industry

I loved my time at Oxford. The privilege of having had three years beneath the dreaming spires left me with a sense of emotional connection that is hard to express. But that feeling has been tested to its limit by the attitude of the current management of Oxford. Let me explain.

In late 2013, I approached the Oxford Alumni Office, asking them who I should approach to encourage divestment from fossil fuels. Here is an extract from that email:

I was up at Oriel (79-82) and have lately found myself becoming quite active in the attempt to stop us from rendering the planet uninhabitable. Sounds completely absurd when you write it down, doesn't it? Climate change is real and we (people, that is) are causing it. I know this because I went to a lecture at the Alumni weekend where two fresh-faced D. Phils from Oxford said so. The point of this email is this: as I recently read that the Cambridge Student Union has voted to get their University to divest themselves of all investment in fossil fuels, I would like to see Oxford do the same. It is entirely inconsistent - not to mention insane - for the University to have investments in carbon-dirty industries when Oxford's own scientists are doing so much work to show that we are destabilising the climate. When I was an undergraduate, Cuppers rowing and Torpids were never cancelled - but now the Isis floods often. It would be the worst of disasters for the University if large areas of Oxford were to be inundated, as the worst predictions for sea level rises suggest.

Even if the potential flooding is a way off, investments in coal, for example, are likely to become stranded assets, eventually being worthless. So, even in the relatively short term, any such investments make little financial sense. Morally, they are entirely indefensible.

The University responded within days. The reply I received was the worst kind of high-handed, self-satisfied fob off. An assistant to the Vice-Chancellor emailed me. Here is part of the reply:

The University of Oxford's core mission is education and research. As I am sure you will appreciate, as a charity the University has a legal obligation to maximise the returns on its investments to support its charitable objects. The University's endowment management company invests in funds that include a range of the world's top companies, which may - but do not necessarily - include oil and gas companies. The University is entirely comfortable with this position.

In other words, get lost.

Oxford has become professional about keeping in touch with its graduates, trotting out the usual phrases about how important we are to the University. What they actually mean is that we are welcome to send donations but what Oxford then does with that money is none of our business. I was so infuriated by how "comfortable" Oxford is about investing in fossil fuels that I pursued the matter.

The claim that the University has a 'legal obligation to maximise the returns on its investments' caused me to plough through both the Companies Act and the Charities Act. Nowhere in either law is there any obligation to maximise the value of investments. The hackneyed phrase used to justify all kinds of corporate irresponsibility, describing the alleged duty 'to maximise shareholder value', putting profit above every other consideration is not law. This mantra of the greedy was coined by two business studies professors at a small college in New York State in the 1970s.

The Charities Act gives the widest possible latitude for charities to set their aims and how they spend money to achieve them. The Companies Act requires company directors to take into account the interests of their employees and the environment. So, I wrote back to Oxford, asking them to explain themselves. I pointed out that Oxford researchers had revealed that fossil fuel companies were actively funding misinformation about climate change and were attacking climate scientists - including those who work at Oxford. I also sent the university a link to their own Smith School's report on the danger of investing in coal as it could become worthless in the very near term.

The University's response: no reply. The stonework of Oxford's architecture is charming. The stonewalling by the University is a disgrace.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.