U. of U. may dump oil and gas stocks, but it will take at least a year. Why the wait?

Divestment proponents say the school is moving too slowly on an urgent issue.

University of Utah President Taylor Randall says the school is still looking at divesting oil and gas holdings in its $1 billion endowment, but it will be at least another year before such a move occurs.

Those on campus pushing for divestment would like to see a faster pace.

Speaking to The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board recently, Randall said the state’s flagship university is in the process of hiring a new chief investment officer and is restructuring management of the U.’s endowment with the idea of aligning the school’s investments more closely with its values. The endowment’s fossil fuel holdings were estimated last year at $60 million to $90 million.

Randall said a divestment plan put forth by the U.’s Ad Hoc Committee for Divestment and Strategic Reinvestment Investigation, which was passed by the U.’s academic senate a year ago, remains the plan the school is pursuing, but the board of trustees wanted to set new priorities for investment management first.

The ad hoc committee, which included faculty, students and nonvoting members of U. administration, held public town hall meetings and gathered other information to produce a 61-page report on divestment.

“The university should modify its existing investment pool guidelines and implementation strategy,” the report stated, “to establish principles and approaches that further its established charitable purposes regarding climate change and sustainability, as well as its fiscal goals, in future endowment investment decisions.”

The report contains eight recommendations, including:

• Divesting within a year the stock holdings in 200 companies deemed the biggest generators of carbon dioxide.

• Divesting within 10 years the private-equity holdings that include fossil-fuel investments.

• Investing proceeds from the divestments in clean energy companies and other ventures aligned with the U.’s values.

• Adding the school’s chief sustainability officer to the investment advisory committee.

“As we step back and look at the big picture, the academic senate came with some very thoughtful and nice recommendations for the investment committee,” trustee David Parkin, who sits on the board’s investment advisory committee, told board members in December.

“This is a transition,” Parkin added, “and it takes a very long time to transition, so let’s be very thoughtful in the transition.”

Piper Christian, a student member of the committee, would like to see a more timely response to the eight recommendations and is concerned that the process laid out by the trustees is “vague.”

“A timeline ought to be established for the board’s deliberation and ultimate verdict, and a plan laid out for how the various constituencies of the university (students, faculty, staff, and others) will be included in this deliberation,” Christian said in a statement. “Once the board of trustees reaches a decision, the university should be informed of which of the eight recommendations were adopted, and a summary of how the decision was reached. Taking the aforementioned measures will ensure transparency and accountability.”

Robert Adler, a law professor on the committee, was pleased to see the trustees’ commitment.

“On the other hand, it is disappointing that the university will take so long to act on the recommendations,” he said. “Although I understand the need to involve the university’s new chief investment officer, the proposed board committee, with involvement of all university constituencies, could easily begin the process of beginning to implement at least some of the recommendations, with further action as the new investment office comes up to speed.”

The U. is following a trend in higher education. Eight of the 12 Pac-12 universities have some kind of divestment plan, and Harvard University said last September it would divest fossil fuel holdings from its $42 billion endowment.

The U. recently joined the prestigious Association of American Universities, and about a third of its members have divestment plans.

The ad hoc committee’s report noted that a significant amount of research funding comes from companies involved in fossil fuels but added that divestment decisions did not have a big effect on such funding.

Utah State University does not have any such plans, according to Amanda DeRito, the Logan school’s associate vice president for strategic communication. “USU is not changing investment strategies at this time, and we do not have policies that specifically address environmental or social impacts.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.