When Colleges Divest, Who Wins? Hint: Not The Colleges


I don’t normally do this, but it’s a special occasions. Here’s a press release from the National Association of Scholars announcing the release of their report Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels (PDF; the Divestment home page). Pay special attention to the last contributed essay in this volume (starts p. 286). The fellow that wrote it is going places. (I remind the reader the unemployment office and jail are places.)

NAS had an event yesterday in Manhattan and your roving reporter was there. Perhaps George Gilder, the Emcee, who, surveying modern university life and wondering what could possibly account for it, said it best: “Depravity”, “Dementia”, “Harvard [and others] sold out to Government”, and so on. Herb London, chair of the board at NAS, knew the one word to describe the reason college administrators don’t act when a rabble of students act criminally: “Cowardice.” And Rachelle Peterson, the author of the divestment report, summed up accurately why so many students these days belong to so many causes: they have plenty of time on their hands. Class work is now so simplified and undemanding that lots of the day is left over to raise fists and march.

Here’s the press release, which says it all. Read the report: its nails the movement as a manipulation of students (by you know whom) to vilify a certain industry (and you know what).

(Moderation is still on, incidentally. Plus, I’ll be on a flight this morning, so I thank you for your patience.)


When Colleges Divest, Who Wins?

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) released today the first comprehensive account of the campaign to get colleges to sell off their investments in coal, oil, and natural gas companies.

Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels finds that the campus fossil fuel divestment campaign undermines intellectual freedom, democratic self-government, and responsible stewardship of natural resources. The report presents a wealth of original research and concludes with new essays by writers including Bill McKibben, the national leader of the divestment campaign, and Willie Soon, the Harvard Smithsonian physicist who is a prominent critic of the global warming “consensus.”

More Political Than Practical

Issued less than a month before the Paris climate talks in which President Obama is expected to repeat his vow to move America off fossil fuels to combat global warming, the NAS report shows that divestment is more of a political rallying cry than a practical step to improve the environment.

Peter Wood, president of the NAS, explained, “Divestment divides the political left. The campus activists often criticize President Obama for not going far enough in his ‘war on coal’ and his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. Their campaign is meant to pressure him to take even more radical steps.”

As the study details, most divestments are empty political promises with little financial effect on fossil fuel companies. The leaders of the movement see the sham divestment decisions as part of the strategy. “The divestment campaign is designed to fail,” said Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at NAS and author of Inside Divestment. “The organizers’ goal is not to cause colleges to divest, but to anger students at the refusal of colleges to divest fully and to turn their frustration into long-term antipathy toward the modern fossil fuel-based economy.”

Wood explained, “The movement pretends to change the way we generate energy, but its actual aim is to generate resentment, which is fuel for political demagoguery. The ultimate beneficiaries are rich people whose investments in ‘green energy’ will prosper only if they can trick the public to strand our reserves of coal, oil, and gas underground. They favor high-priced, inefficient technologies that happen to require massive government subsidies coupled with sweeping new government powers. Students drawn by ‘save the world’ rhetoric and prevented from ever hearing arguments on the other side have become willing pawns for a movement that, rightly understood, is profoundly anti-democratic and that will also consign much of humanity to perpetual poverty.”

Students as Pawns

Divestment campaigns, now on more than 1,000 American colleges and universities, have adopted tactics that violate the free speech of others. The activists increasingly obstruct fair and open debate by smearing opponents and by bullying other students. The NAS study documents these tactics with case studies of several colleges, including the birthplace of the divestment movement, Swarthmore College.

Wood explained, “The divestment campaigns have been organized by professional activists. Our report peels back the image the campaign projects of an organic student-led movement. In fact, it is a nationally orchestrated campaign with top-down directives.”

350.org, the organization that brought the campaign to national prominence, pays and trains students for activism and schedules campus protests. “The divestment movement is astroturf,” said Peterson.


Peterson also shows that some of the activists’ key claims are hollow. “We found that colleges and universities that claim to divest overwhelmingly choose to retain large portions of their fossil fuel investments.” On average, divestment decisions affect only about 1 percent of the college endowment and leave approximately 50 percent of fossil fuel investments in place. The study lists four “DINOs,” or divestments in name only; these are universities, including Oxford, whose divestment decisions resulted in selling no investments at all.

Inside Divestment follows the NAS’s March 2015 report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.


  1. Fear and cowardice were my nominations for why this is happening, as Mr. London said.

    Why do colleges not divest themselves of fossil fuels–shut off the lights, turn off the heat and serve only non-refrigerated, uncooked meals? I’m sure the students would be estatic that they are doing their part. How about it colleges? Divest immediately and give your students what they want.


  2. John B()

    I was at school during divestment over the South Africa Apartheid years. I saw how frightened and worried company CEOs and officials were about ALL the schools that were going to sell off their companies’ stock.

    They were sweating bullets.
    (I think those bullets were used for “blood diamonds”)

  3. Gary

    Divestment is a version of the long-standing tactic of marginalized groups: the boycott. From what I’ve observed, boycotts are largely ineffective except for gaining publicity from media that love visible controversy. Media amplification along with the appropriate emotionally appealing soundbites eventually translates into political decisions. It’s just a matter of lining up the dominoes and giving the first one a slight push.

    The irony is that if activists were to purchase more fossil fuel company stock they would have more influence at shareholder meetings and in board decisions.

  4. The way the stock market is going now, oil prices dropping, prices for Standard Oil shares (XOM) and those of other oil companies plummeting, divestment might be a sound financial decision.

  5. Bob: I thought one was supposed to “buy low, sell high”, not the other way around. George Soros did this when Obama trashed the coal market–bought a ton of cheap shares. Colleges should follow Soros’s example.

    (Oil and gas will recover, as will coal. It’s a cycle that repeats over and over. If one needs immediate income, shares in these commodities is not a good idea. Over the long haul, it pays out. Until a viable alternative to these fuels is found, the market will exist and most likely keep going up and down. Best to watch for that magic breakthrough in alternative energy rather than the periodic ups and downs in the market.)

  6. Sheri, you’re quite correct…I didn’t put the “sar” notation on my comment.

  7. DAV

    The irony is that if activists were to purchase more fossil fuel company stock they would have more influence at shareholder meetings and in board decisions.

    True but then their own money would be on the line. Can’t have that. The Left’s main principle is to use OPM.

  8. JH

    War on this, war on that… everything is a war to somebody. What a lovely word!

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