In the past year or two you may have been aware of campaigns springing up on campuses in both the UK and abroad; calling on universities to commit to the ethical investment of their endowment funds. Today marks the public launch of our very own campaign here at Southampton, ‘Invest Positive UoS’.
The open letter below asks the University to commit to socially and environmentally responsible investment. With support from more than 50 signatories including the presidents of 11 student societies, PhD students and 14 members of academic staff, it represents a fantastic coalition. We are calling for the University not to allow its capital to be invested in the arms trade, tobacco industry or most polluting and dangerous fossil fuel resources; namely coal, tar sands oil and Arctic development. Much of the University’s cash is currently awaiting reinvestment, though does unfortunately still include a direct holding in Shell; an oil giant with operations in the Arctic and extensively involved in the exploitation of high-carbon tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The continuing development of these sands has been described by academics as incompatible with climate protection.
One of our staff signatories is Professor John Shepherd from the National Oceanography Centre; a senior climate scientist and former chair of the Department of Energy and Climate Change Science Advisory Group. He had this to say:
“Many of us lecture on the need to find a more sustainable way of life but few of us take effective action. While there is a limit to what we can achieve on our own; as a community we can have more traction. We need to practice what we preach and encouraging our University to adopt ethical investment policies, as well as greening its operations, is another small step in the right direction.”
Socially responsible investment is not just about the money. These public commitments are not intended or able to bankrupt companies, or lead to the obviously impractical immediate cessation of global fossil fuel use. Rather they serve to withdraw moral and academic cover from fundamentally unethical business models and instead create space and public support for world leaders to act. Ethical financial strategies also free up university funds to invest positively; including in the clean energy technologies that will power our future. Ahead of vital international climate talks in Paris this December, the need for unambiguous academic support for low carbon energy could not be greater.
I don’t imagine that anyone will need much explanation as to why we consider tobacco an unsuitable investment but I do want to touch briefly on the arms trade. The UK arms trade has been shown to conduct a significant proportion of its business with authoritarian regimes with, in some cases, truly abysmal human rights records. Profiting from companies facilitating war and internal repression would be ethically dubious for any investor however, for a university with a large and diverse international student body, it is surely unthinkable. We do not know if the University has any internal understanding regarding arms trade investment but would, in any instance; welcome a public policy clearly excluding them from its portfolio.
Southampton is not generally the most politically active of campuses but I started this campaign with my friends and colleagues because I believe that the students here do care about the big issues. I believe that you will want to know, and have a right to expect, that the tuition fees you pay are being invested in a way that does not conflict with the causes of peace, social justice and the preservation of our planet’s extraordinary richness of life and precious biodiversity.
We are a peaceful campaign and genuinely wish to engage warmly and positively with the University. While the lack of a transparent, socially and environmentally responsible investment policy is an oversight that absolutely must be addressed; we hope to see a healthy dialogue between the University and its students and staff rather than confrontation. Please read and share this article and the letter below; join us on Facebook or Twitter; check out our blog and be a part of making our University better. Thank you!
NB: The above article represents my own reflections as campaign coordinator and is distinct from the letter below which is co-signed by more than 50 students and staff.
To the Vice Chancellor and Finance Advisory Group,
As a leading research institution the University of Southampton has acknowledged its important role in demonstrating leadership by promoting sustainability in all that it does and in making a positive impact on society as a globally responsible University. These are values that it also seeks to instil in its students. The University’s research continues to make a substantial contribution to the science that underpins our understanding of climate change and to the technical advances and social changes that will help us adapt to a changing environment.
The University’s financial security is built largely upon the tuition fees paid by its students from both the UK and abroad. Therefore, they have a reasonable expectation that its endowment fund be invested in a manner that is consistent with preserving the long term health of global society and the environment. The University has been clear about its very welcome desire to see sustainability embedded across its community and we feel that a strong commitment to ethical investment is an essential step in this process. It is vital to ensure that financial decision making at the University is consistent with its ambition to be, “recognised as the global leader in sustainability in the Higher Education sector”.
We the undersigned believe:
- Recent FOI requests revealing that the vast majority of the University’s endowment capital is being held as cash mean that this is an excellent time to consider a new investment strategy.
- The University should work with its staff and students to produce a transparent, socially and environmentally responsible investment strategy that is consistent with its research and sustainability objectives. This should apply to both direct investments and to those in mixed funds administrated by third parties.
- Anthropogenic global climate change presents a serious threat to food security, public health, human settlements and precious habitats and biodiversity both on land and at sea. As such the University’s investment strategy should exclude companies engaged in exploiting the most polluting and environmentally dangerous fossil fuel resources; namely coal, tar sands and Arctic drilling.
- In making a commitment on fossil fuel investments the University of Southampton would be in good company, joining the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Oxford and Warwick; fellow Russell Group members. Ahead of vital international climate talks in Paris this December the need for unambiguous academic support for climate action could not be greater.
- In view of the irrefutable health risks of smoking and the unethical business and lobbying practices of big tobacco, especially in developing nations, the University must explicitly reject investment in this industry.
- Arms companies, in profiting from the proliferation of weapons and global conflict, are highly unethical. The University must be clear that it will never hold direct or indirect investments in the arms industry.
- Committing to socially and environmentally responsible investment would serve to greatly enhance the University of Southampton’s reputation with current and prospective students and within the national and international Higher Education sector.
Mike Allwright* – Invest Positive UoS Campaign Coordinator, PhD Student Biological Sciences
Jake James-Knell – President, Green Action Society
Maddie Cava-Beale – Secretary, Green Action Society
Rosie Pearce – Politics and International Relations
Frances Prince – Modern Languages
Cameron Meldrum – Co-chair, Young Greens
Luke Gosling – Treasurer, Young Greens
Joel Foreman – Elections Officer, Young Greens
Florence Angelo – Equality and Diversity Officer, Young Greens
Daniella Montali-Ashworth – President SU Conservation Volunteers
Rachael Avery – Publicity Officer, SU Conservation Volunteers
Pippa Hayes – Social Secretary, SU Conservation Volunteers
Chloe Nunn – President, Marine Conservation Society
Jo Coomber – Vice President, Marine Conservation Society
David Allwright – Oceanography
Aidan Starr – Oceanography
Kyle Mayers – PhD Student OES
Steven Bourne – PhD Student OES
Jessica Bellworthy – PhD Student OES
Steph Allen – PhD Student OES
Victoria Hemsley – PhD Student OES
Lucie Munns – PhD Student OES
Lissette Victorero – PhD Student OES
Jesse Cusack – PhD Student OES
Elena Bollati – PhD Student OES
Mark Marsden – President, Student Switch-Off Society
William Townsend – President, Environmental Science Student Society
Michelle Gibson – Environmental Science
Annabelle Damerum – President, Biological Sciences Postgraduate Society
Anna Page – Media and Communications Officer, Biological Sciences Postgraduate Society
James Gott – PhD Student Biological Sciences
Joe Jenkins – PhD Student Biological Sciences
Zoe Harris – PhD Student Biological Sciences
Matt Roberts – President, Worldview Southampton
Poppy Bowers – President, Amnesty International Southampton
Sara El-Kateep – President, Students for Palestine Southampton
Filipe Soares – President, Southampton Marxists
Mert Cal – Secretary, Southampton Marxists
Trina Davies – Wessex Scene, Science and Environment Editor
*Contact Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof John Shepherd – National Oceanography Centre, Former Chair of DECC Science Advisory Group
Prof Jeanice Brooks – Department of Music
Dr Conor McHugh – Associate Professor in Philosophy
Dr Gabriele B. Durrant – Associate Professor in Social Statistics
Dr Kate Schreckenberg – Lecturer in Environmental Science
Dr James Dyke – Lecturer of Complex Systems Simulation
Dr Benjamin Oliver – Lecturer in Music
Dr Chris Prior – Lecturer in History
Joyce Lewis – Senior Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science
Jane Warren – Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
Ceri Dunn – Senior Teaching Fellow in English Language
Laurence Georgin – Senior Academic Coordinator in Modern Languages
Dr Adrian Nightingale – Research Fellow in Droplet Microfluidics and Point-of-Care Diagnostics
Dr Alexander Pryor – Post-Doctoral Researcher in Archaeology