A group of people surrounded by academic buildings hold signs encouraging the University of Richmond to divest from fossil fuels and listen to a speaker holding a megaphone.
GreenUR’s March for Divestment on March 24. Credit: GreenUR / Courtesy

A small yet motivated coterie of environmentally minded University of Richmond students is urging the top liberal arts college to be the first in Virginia — and one of barely a handful across the South — to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Senior Mason Manley and other GreenUR members spearheading the cause know that a single school’s actions won’t halt the climate crisis. 

But they are resolute in their belief that pivoting money away from coal, gas and oil and toward clean energy would signal their alma mater is attentive to the topsy-turvy future it’s preparing them to face.

“We have the potential to influence how billions of dollars are invested,” said Manley, an environmental studies major. “When else am I going to have the chance to do that?

“It comes down to getting dollars out of the hands of fossil fuel companies being a moral imperative.”

Thus far, university officials are “aware” of students’ passion, but noncommittal on altering their approach to managing a $3.2 billion endowment.

“I’m proud of the students and the thinking they’re doing on this issue,” said Dave Hale, the university’s COO and executive vice president. “However, we have to take a very broad view of how we manage our financial assets and steward them over the near- and long-term.” 

Public records spelling out exactly how much of the university’s endowment is even invested in fossil fuels aren’t available.

Since Hampshire College in Massachusetts launched the divestment charge in 2011, at least 82 U.S. colleges have followed suit on a full or partial basis. While Northeast and West Coast universities dominate the list, it is geographically diverse.

Richmond’s pursuit to join two other Southern schools — Emory in Atlanta and Brevard in North Carolina — began in earnest when Manley, GreenUR president since 2020, returned to campus last fall after studying abroad his junior year.

Last September, the nascent organization found its footing by linking with Fridays for Future, a sweeping youth-led global environmental movement that began quietly five years ago in Sweden when then-teenager Greta Thunberg kicked off a solo school strike for climate.

Divestment shifted to the bull’s-eye after several GreenUR stalwarts brainstormed with faculty adviser Mary Finley-Brook, associate professor of geography and the environment.

“That idea was reignited by continuing to join with a larger network,” Manley said about connecting with student activists at Tufts University as well as the Sierra Club, Third Act, Appalachian Voices and other local, climate-aware allies. “That made me realize we can do this too.”

By January, Manley met one-on-one with university President Kevin Hallock, which led to a February make-the-case meeting with Hale. By late April, upward of 720 advocates had signed a pro-divestment petition inspired by a student-led rally in March. University enrollment is 3,164 undergraduates and 726 graduate students.

“I have been fortunate that I’ve made friends in high places while I’ve been here,” Manley, of Yorkshire, England, said about access via his President’s Student Advisory Board membership. “I do feel like I was well placed to raise these issues and have them at least respectfully listen to me.”

However, the 22-year-old wants to believe his words will open minds, not just doors. He’s also well aware GreenUR isn’t the only campus organization with a corner on morals.

“We have a moral obligation to protect and enhance the purchasing power of gifts given to us by supporters,” Hale said, adding that assets cover a range of sustainability initiatives, financial aid for students and 40% of the university’s operating budget. “Our guiding light is fiduciary responsibility.”

And Hale explained that the university’s portion of the endowment — $3.2 billion — is just 60% of a total of $5.5 billion to $6 billion handled by what’s called Spider Management Company, named for the university’s mascot. In 2008, the private university invited other small institutions to invest under the umbrella of the firm.

“It’s a unique structure of endowment management,” Hale said about the mix of university assets with those of roughly 20 nonprofits. “Right out of the gate, that makes divesting a more complex issue.

“We’re not trying to send a message to the students that climate change is not an important issue. At the same time, we have talented investment professionals and we allow them to determine what is appropriate to invest in and what is not. They are paid very well to make those decisions every day.”

Complicated portfolios don’t necessarily have to be a barrier to divestment.

For instance, Kingston, New York, financial analyst Tom Sanzillo, who works at a nonprofit organization backing energy transition, said divesting from fossil fuels is commonplace these days. 

“It is definitely doable,” said Sanzillo, of the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “And it’s not an extraordinary request anymore.” 

He pointed to the roughly 1,500 global institutions that have coupled with the Divest-Invest Movement over the last dozen years.

“Maybe the university can’t do it abruptly,” Sanzillo said, referencing Richmond. “It’s going to take time, but there’s a way to move from a portfolio of traditional investments — whether it’s stocks, bonds, real estate or private equity funds — without getting bogged down in fees.”

And moving beyond fossil fuels, he added, “shouldn’t preclude having an aggressive stance on investments.” 

Faculty Senate stirring divestment pot

In late March, the university’s Faculty Senate echoed GreenUR’s call to reconsider fossil fuel investments by approving a four-page climate justice resolution.

Addressing the climate crisis, faculty members wrote, “can not rely on international action alone but requires local leadership, and the University affirms to being a leader in action in building an equitable, inclusive, and sustainable society.”

A pair of the 13 specific recommendations center on potential divestment. For instance, one is a request that Spider Management assess the university’s endowment for carbon risk and liability.

The second asks that the endowment’s climate risk be reviewed, “meaning risk assessments based on formal analysis of the consequences, likelihoods and responses to the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Faculty Senate President Stephen Long said the resolution likely isn’t much of a hammer because it’s nonbinding — and hasn’t yet prompted a response from Hallock or other university officials.

“Still, we have to be on the record about matters like this, when our students are trying to model the kind of global citizenship we are trying to teach them,” said Long, an associate professor of political science. “They have been very smart in their approach to this.”

While Long fears the resolution will fall into a void, Hale counters that’s not necessarily the case.

“We’re only four, maybe five weeks out from the climate justice resolution being submitted,” Hale said, adding that little at a university moves at lightning speed. “We take it very seriously. It’s part of the input brought forward for us to consider.”

Long said it’s eternally frustrating for those aware of unfolding climate catastrophes to witness the mismatch between what academic researchers know about the science and how universities act as financial entities.

“We’re trying to push to the extent that our voice allows us to be a leader instead of a follower,” he said about the resolution. 

Endowment managers tend to be risk-averse traditionalists, leery that rules or guidelines with an environmental, social, and corporate governance framework could lower returns and jeopardize sound stewardship, he continued.

“But that’s where the disconnect is,” Long said. “Ignoring the long-term risk that climate change poses, not just in terms of the fate of humanity, but with fossil fuel investments that will lose out as we transition to clean energy — that’s a financial risk.”

Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of financial analysis, said it’s incumbent on the university’s board of trustees to take the initiative with Spider Management if divestment is indeed the goal.

“It can’t be the other way around,” he said. “The university board needs to lay out what it wants so managers can develop an investment strategy that gets out of fossil fuels by certain dates.

“And they can tell managers to construct the plan in a way that meets targets and sound fiduciary practices.”

Sanzillo has specialized in divestment for 15 years, more than half of his financial career.

These days, he said, almost every allocation in a portfolio has a parallel index fund that is “green” and earns returns consistent with traditional funds.

“Climate can pose a leadership challenge,” Sanzillo said. “It’s hard for boards to tell fund managers what to do. Board members have to say, ‘We understand your reservations, but we think it’s a good idea. So, show us how to do it.’”

Advocates: Spider Solar a green cover

Hale and other officials boast about the university’s multi-pronged sustainability undertakings and commitments. Chief among them is being an early solar adopter in Virginia.

Beginning in 2021, the university has covered all of its electricity needs — roughly 40,000 megawatt-hours annually — by tapping into 20 megawatts of a solar mega-farm 50 miles away in Spotsylvania County. The 500-megawatt array was built by sPower, which merged with AES’s clean energy branch.

Electricity usage has remained steady even while the university’s building footprint has expanded by 300,000 square feet over the decade beginning in 2012, said Rob Andrejewski, university director of sustainability since 2015.

GreenUR students claim the university uses the photovoltaic project as a green cover that distracts from its lack of progress on issues such as updating the latest version of its Climate Action Plan from 2018 and acting faster on its 2019-2025 Sustainability Plan checklist. 

But Andrejewski defended Hale, saying that the Board of Trustees might not have greenlighted the Spider Solar contract in 2018 without his intervention.

“Early on, the project was no sure thing,” he said. “Having Hale go to the board was a big deal. He’s the face of that investment.”

Overall, campus greenhouse gas emissions have fallen roughly 70% between 2011 and 2021 — and Spider Solar is a major force behind that. Statistics for 2022 are still being compiled, Andrejewski said, adding that emissions figures over the last few years were skewed by the pandemic shutdown.

He also noted that the university’s emissions took a deep dive in 2012 when price drops and student advocacy spurred a fuel switch at the central steam plant from coal to gas.

Thus far, the university has completed 30 of the 93 “action items” laid out in its 44-page Sustainability Plan. Another 21 are in progress and the remaining 42 are undone.

GreenUR advocates are upset that officials have yet to target a goal of partnering with Spider Management to develop a committee focused on responsible investing.

Andrejewski is sympathetic to the students’ cause, but explained that his title allows him to do tons of legwork but doesn’t grant him the authority to make unilateral decisions.

“With many of these goals, we’re at the early stages of exploring best practices,” he said. “For me, the process is very much a ‘build the road so we can drive on it’ one. I know it’s a lot slower than people would like.”

In tandem, another goal is for the university to achieve platinum status by 2024 via a tracking and rating system developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education or AASHE. 

A leap from gold to platinum could be within reach if the university earned points in the investment/finance category of the AASHE form. Currently, Richmond has a zero entered on that line.

“On this one, I don’t have a clear path forward,” Andrejewski said, adding that it’s up to separate committees. 

While all data on the evaluations are self-reported, he said it offers schools benchmarks on initiatives they ought to be considering.

“I do know that when those 93 items in the Sustainability Plan are done,” he said, “we ought to be near top of the tracking and rating system.”

GreenUR pausing, then persisting in autumn

In a newer twist on divestment, climate activists with at least one southern college, Vanderbilt University, have joined with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale, Stanford and Princeton universities in claiming that investing in fossil fuels is not only immoral but also illegal — because it conflicts with the mission of higher education.

The effort orchestrated a year ago by the Climate Defense Project argues that schools are violating a state law about where nonprofit institutions can put their money. Paperwork with attorneys general in the relevant states lasers in on the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act.

GreenUR isn’t ready to tack in that direction yet.    

With the end of the academic year looming, Manley and his fellow divestment champions are pausing their campaign to re-strategize.

Manley, set to graduate May 7, has accepted a Richmond-based job with the advocacy group Chesapeake Climate Action Network. As a booster of youth environmental activism in central Virginia, he will continue to advise GreenUR. 

However, one opportunity he doesn’t want to squander is a recent invitation to meet with the chief investment officer of Spider Management — now likely to happen this autumn.

Sophomore Zoe Cultrara, who handles communications for GreenUR, said she’s hopeful that hard-fought momentum doesn’t slip away in the interim.

“If we don’t keep going, who is going to be the one to put pressure on our administration?” asked the 20-year-old environmental studies major from Morristown, New Jersey. “The alternative to fighting is doing nothing, which doesn’t lead to any change at all.”

Manley noted that trash pickups, invasive plant species and energy efficiency were GreenUR cornerstones when it launched 15 or so years ago.

After slogging through COVID-19, this is the first year members have gelled as an advocacy group, he said. Recharging seems necessary after a gratifying yet exhausting journey to gain traction on campus. 

“The entire time our generation has grown up we were expected to accept the fact we are heading toward an insurmountable challenge, climate change,” he said.

“It comes down to this: If I don’t do something, who else will?”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.