SOE Student Activism Paved Way to University Divestment from Fossil Fuels

On March 9, the Rutgers University Board of Governors and Board of Trustees announced it would divest the university endowment’s fossil fuel investments. The decision was based on the recommendation of a faculty, student, and staff ad hoc committee formed to consider a fossil fuel divestment request from the student-led Endowment Justice Collective.

While some progress has already been made in terms of the divestiture, at the time, 5% of the university’s $1.6 billion endowment was in fossil fuel investments. For Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway, the decision to divest fossil fuels “aligns with Rutgers’ mission to advance public health and social justice.” It is a decision that additionally aligns with the School of Engineering’s (SOE) commitment to fostering ethically responsible and sustainable transformation and innovation.

In fact, SOE students concerned about the deleterious effects of climate change have long been passionate advocates and leaders in the drive for Rutgers to divest its fossil fuel investments.

Laying the Groundwork for Divestment in 2013

Shane Patel, who graduated from Rutgers in 2015 with a School of Engineering BS in materials science and engineering and a BA from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, kicked off the first fossil fuel divestment campaign at Rutgers as president of the Rutgers University Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign.

“While we were the first fossil fuel divestment campaign in 2013, I felt we were following in big footsteps,” Patel says, referencing the successful – and historic – 1985 campaign to divest Rutgers’ endowment from companies doing business with Apartheid South Africa.

In high school, Patel had been inspired by environmental activist Bill McKibben, who argued that it is wrong for the fossil fuel industry to profit from destroying the planet. “If climate change were simply a technological problem, we would have solved it via a price on carbon in the 1980s or 1990s. Instead, the fossil fuel industry uses its wealth and influence to stop itself from being properly regulated,” says Patel, who is currently a doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. “Divestment is a way of showing that we, as a university and broader society, oppose that business model.”

At the time, Tilak Lal, the chair-elect of the Rutgers University Board of Trustees, and SoE alumnus who is currently the head of risk management at Lighthouse Partners, chaired the Board of Governors’ and Board of Trustees’ joint committee on investments. “Shane led the first big thrust and reached out to the Investment Committee,” he recalls.

It had taken about a year of campaigning before Patel’s Fossils Fuel Divestment Campaign was directed to Lal and the joint committee on investments. Patel  remembers Lal as being personally encouraging. “He has a clear interest in hearing what students care about and are fighting for – especially on climate change. From day one, I could see it was  a problem that genuinely concerned him and that he believed my generation should be leading the charge in fighting for change,” he says.

According to Lal, a representative committee of faculty, students, administrators, and board members was formed to formulate a university divestment policy that balanced divestment requests with the fiduciary duties of the governing boards.  “To balance the two, there needs to be a high bar,” says Lal. “The divestment policy and protocol keeps the boards’ fiduciary duties front and center as they consider the merits of a divestment request. Divestment shouldn’t be taken lightly – it should occur rarely and after thorough vetting. The boards’ divestment policy lays out a strategic framework for that.”

The boards’ newly approved, phased, ten-year plan to divest from fossil fuel extraction and exploration companies, says Lal, sits side-by-side with the university’s commitment to sustainability and climate resilience. “Our dependence on fossil fuels is a society-wide problem. It’s a predicament we’ve gotten ourselves into as a society, and one that we must solve as a collective.”

Looking back, Patel says, “We planted the seeds for divestment. When I was a student, we had a truly vibrant group of committed student activists, faculty mentors, and community members who dedicated time and effort to the campaign. Though it’s taken years since I graduated, and a lull in the divestment push, I do think we made a moral and financial case that won us support from key people.”

A Renewed Push for Divestment

Today’s students are equally committed to the push for university divestment from fossil fuels. Evan Bregenzer, a rising senior studying civil and environmental engineering, has played a role in a change movement that has led, as he puts it, “to putting the university on a more environmentally focused path.”

As Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) sustainability chair, he has directed environmental issues fueled by input from the university community and student body. He also co-authored the Guaranteeing Responsible and Environmentally Efficient, or GREEN Act. 

“The biggest prompt for all RUSA members to draft this act was to push our university to become a leader not only in academics, but also in environmental sustainability,” Bregenzer explains. “Divesture of fossil fuels was a large part of the GREEN Act.”

As a student of civil and environmental engineering, Bregenzer is pleased the push for fossil fuel divestment succeeded. “This divestment symbolized that Rutgers is truly on a cusp of change regarding environmental sustainability and environmental justice. ” he says.

Patel, who has remained active as a volunteer organizer, coordinating policy and electoral politics with the Chicago hub of the Sunrise Movement and whose PhD thesis is energy-focused, agrees. “It feels incredible. The fact that the campus community was now able to get it done truly makes me so proud to be an alumnus.”