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UB students pushing foundation to divest from fossil fuels

Environmental studies major Vanessa Dwyer last year started prodding University at Buffalo officials to divest endowment funds from fossil fuel companies, as several universities around the country already have done.

This year, a full-throated campaign has taken hold at UB. And even though she will be graduating later this month, Dwyer expects it to grow louder and stronger if the University at Buffalo Foundation doesn't move soon to get out of the fossil fuel industry entirely.

"People are recognizing that you can do things to make the world more of what you want it to be," she said. Dwyer is part of Fossil Free UB, a grassroots student group responsible for building a divestment movement on campus.

The group persuaded student governments on campus to call on the foundation to fully divest from fossil fuels.

More recently, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate at UB agreed to bring to the full Senate a strongly worded resolution that asks the foundation to divest from all fossil fuel stocks and corporate bonds within five years and to reinvest the money in clean energy and "socially responsible alternatives."

Dwyer and two other members of Fossil Free UB, Jessica Landry and Alexa Ringer, helped convince faculty members to weigh in on the issue, which has become a major concern for students on many campuses across the country.

With endowments in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and in some cases multiple billions of dollars, universities are major players in the investment world.

Students said they want UB to be a leader in slowing climate change through fossil fuel divestment. They note that the university likes to showcase itself for pledging to become climate neutral by 2030 and publicizing its campus sustainability efforts.

Solar array near the Flint Road entrance to the University at Buffalo North Campus. (Jay Tokasz/Buffalo News)

"UB itself has taken pretty good leadership on environmentalism, and we know that and love that and we want to extend it to the UB Foundation," said Landry, a senior from Saratoga Springs.

Through divestment, the university and its foundation can help break the fossil fuel industry's hold on the economy and government, the students said in their petition, which has generated more than 1,600 signatures.

Ringer said it is no empty gesture. Each university's divestment adds to the "stigmatization of the entire industry" while also driving down share value, she said.

"For me, divestment is so important because it's creating a network, a movement of people who care about this," said Ringer, a freshman from New York City. "I want to make sure I am on the right side of history."

Universities have been pulling out of fossil fuel investment for the past few years. Syracuse University pledged in 2015 not to directly invest in publicly traded companies that extract fossil fuels and to direct external investment managers away from such investments. Stanford University, the University of Maine, the University of Dayton and the University of Hawaii also decided against fossil fuel investment.

When she was elected president of the environmental network, Dwyer wanted to spark a student-led campaign that would lead to similar results at UB.

Dwyer went looking for exactly how much the UB Foundation invested in the fossil fuel industry, but she came away with few details.

"It could be $40 million invested in fossil fuels or it could be $10 million, but we have no way of knowing," she said.

The private foundation holds assets of more than a $1 billion on behalf of the state's largest public research university, but it does not include in its federal tax returns or consolidated financial reports any detailed information about its more than $800 million in investments.

Dwyer and other students have asked foundation officials in emails to provide more specifics about the foundation's investments. Edward Schneider, executive director of the UB Foundation, responded in 2016 to one of the emails by stating that the foundation was not prepared to provide answers at the time but was "actively monitoring" what was happening across the country.

Schneider also said the foundation would review recommendations by a university committee that is studying the issue of responsible investment.

The News this week left a voicemail seeking comment from Schneider, but he did not respond.

The Faculty Senate has repeatedly called upon the university and the UB Foundation to be more transparent about how the foundation takes in money, invests it and distributes it.

The divestment resolution asks the foundation to provide "further detailed financial statements on investments and the exact markets in which they reside, in order to confirm compliance with divestment."

In addition to helping slow down climate change, Landry said she hoped to make more students aware of the way the UB Foundation operates.

"Divestment is a great vehicle for transparency," she said. "A lot of people don't even know what the UB Foundation is."

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