Renewable Thinking

Divest Duke Movement
by Alex Osteen -- September 23rd, 2013

This past week I attended the kickoff meeting of a new initiative on campus called “Divest Duke.” This start-up movement, composed of mainly undergrads (and a few grads), aims to convince Duke’s administration to “divest from direct or indirect ownership of fossil fuel stocks and bonds,” as stated on its Facebook page. The meeting and movement have led me to some serious introspection, as I start my second year at the Nicholas School.divest duke 2 divest duke

The Divest Duke group here on campus is a spinoff of environmental activist Bill McKibben’s, which has its roots at Middlebury College. The big-picture objective of the movement is to convince all universities (or, really, everyone) to boycott its list of 200 carbon-emitting “fossil fuel” companies in order to help put a stop to climate change (and return to 350 ppm CO2 in our atmosphere).

Specifically, Divest Duke wants President Broadhead and the Board of Trustees to put their money where their mouths are and prove that Duke really does care about sustainability.

Indeed, hung outside the student lounge at the Nicholas School, is a framed pledge to sustainability, signed by both the president and provost (see pic).  In fact, Duke has made public its serious goal to become “climate neutral” by 2024. So, will the university take a risk with its multi-billion dollar endowment and take all its money out of these stock-and-barrel S&P 500 companies? This question is even more poignant today because, first, lots of major universities are still reeling from the millions in endowment money they lost in the recession and, second, Duke is in the process of raising $3.2 billion by 2017 with its massive Duke Forward pledge drive.

A figurative and literal reflection on Duke's pledge to sustainability.

A figurative and literal reflection on Duke’s pledge to sustainability.

My personal opinion about Divest Duke is somewhat split. On the one hand, I agree that nearly all big companies in the U.S. have a sickening amount of lobbying power over politicians and, because of that, they generally are not forced to internalize their operations’ negative externalities. Some companies are definitely doing a lot more than others to become truly sustainable, though none seem to be 350_organisation_logo.svgvery close.

Also, Duke’s administration should be receptive to what its students are thinking and saying. It’s exciting to see that kids these days are taking a stand on something, though it should come as no surprise that it should happen at a place like Duke, where students are chosen for their brilliance and desire to make a positive impact on the world. Since Duke, as a top-ten school, strives to be a leader among universities, I can see the case for its going along with something like this [only six of the more than 300 have committed]. I’m guessing as well that a movement like Divest Duke probably stirs up some nostalgia for a lot of the faculty, administrators and alumni, reminding them of their own younger days in activism.

On the other hand, however, the realist in me recognizes the danger of painting these 200 companies as “evil.” I don’t mean to get into an argument about capitalism, but on a basic level, companies exist because there are customers that buy their products. If we are to blame anyone for climate change, it’s all of us who drive cars and who demand cheap energy for our homes, schools and workplaces, and who don’t always vote our minds. Telling 200 large companies to stop their operations with the snap of a finger would work about as well as Prohibition did, I fear, because where there’s demand, there’s supply. We are hypocrites if we can’t admit that we all rely, at least partially, on the goods and services provided by these large companies.


Bill McKibben,

I think that what it comes down to is that no matter what Duke invests its money in or doesn’t, for Divest Duke’s overarching mission to fully work, for us to really halt climate change, we as individuals/consumers must be prepared to pay higher prices (in the short-run) for many of the things we take for granted, especially energy and transportation. Otherwise, our statements and messages are foolhardy and ultimately empty. Can we truly say that we are ready to pay for the consequences of accounting for environmental externalities? If the answer is obviously yes and that we shouldn’t even be able to have the choice in the first place, that our future’s well-being is too important to wager on short-term economic gains, then we must be willing to turn over some of our current freedoms and put our mouths where our money is.

One of my friends reading this post suggested that I conclude by encouraging open-discussion. So, please feel free to share ideas about ways Divest Duke could strengthen their cause and clarify their actual end-goals.


  1. Tawnee Milko
    Tawnee Milko
    Sep 23, 2013

    Thanks for writing about this, Alex. I saw signs for Divest Duke around campus last week, and this thoughtful and extremely informative explanation of what the initiative is, the considerations of what’s involved, and how it could affect us directly was very helpful.

    I think its telling that only six universities of 300 have committed to something like this. Clearly that number is not going to do much to sway all administrators to take up this cause. Perhaps incorporating into the discussion why those six schools made the decision they did and how it’s paid off for them would be helpful — whether through costs or gains, or through building more intangible capital in and beyond campus. Sometimes student interest isn’t enough – universities also have alums, donors, faculty, staff and other constituencies to consider. As much as I hate to say it, numbers and hard data do play an important role in forming a cogent argument when it comes to persuading a major university and these additional elements of it to change course.

  2. Alex Osteen
    Sep 23, 2013

    Thanks for the response, Tawnee. You make a good point that it would be prudent to take a closer look at the six schools that have decided to divest and see what convinced them and what they put their money into instead. It seems that they all have much smaller endowments than Duke, so perhaps it was easier for them to make the investment shift, although it could have actually increased their overall portfolio risk, I’m not sure. At any rate, it goes to show that Duke has a real opportunity to make a bold statement, by joining these small ranks and beating Yale and Harvard etc to the punch.

    But the second point you made really hit the nail on the head. You are right that alumni and donors have a lot of say in Duke’s financial decisions. Even if President Broadhead were to completely side with Divest Duke, it is unclear if he would really have to power to make such a decision. In fact, I’m willing to bet that there are a number of Duke alumni who work at some of the companies that have made it to’s naughty list. Divest Duke will have a big uphill political battle if it’s serious about its mission and will have to convince lots and lots of people. I’m guessing that it will encounter a lot of resistance along the way. At the very minimum, Divest Duke will undoubtedly stir up some heated dialogue on the issue, which is not such a bad thing at a university.

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