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Stanford Has an $18 Billion Endowment. These Students Made Sure It Won't Be Invested in Coal

The decision is the largest single win for the movement to push institutions to divest from fossil fuels. And student activists say they'll keep the pressure on Stanford to divest from oil and natural gas as well as from coal.

Stanford students celebrate on May 7 after the university announced its decision to divest from companies that engage in coal mining. Photo courtesy Fossil Free Stanford.

On May 6, Stanford University announced that they would no longer invest any of their endowment funds—which are worth more than $18 billion—in “companies whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation.” Stanford joins 11 smaller schools around the country in the divestment from coal mining companies.

The school’s prestige and the size of its endowment fund make this the most significant victory in the student-led movement to have universities divest their holdings from fossil fuel companies. Earlier victories took place at smaller schools, including Unity College and the College of the Atlantic in Maine, and Green Mountain College in Vermont.

“Stanford’s commitment to coal divestment is a major victory for the climate movement and for our generation.”

The Stanford Board of Trustees began looking at the possibility of divestment thanks to the student group Fossil Free Stanford. “In the U.S. coal is on its way out and we feel like Stanford really helped that become a reality,” said Yari Greaney, one of the students involved. However, she emphasized the group still wants full divestment from oil and natural gas as well as from coal: “None of these companies have a business model that is sustainable. They all have a business model that is predicated on creating an unsafe climate.”

Last year, the group petitioned the university to pull its investments out of the fossil fuel industry and cited Stanford’s own Statement of Investment Responsibility , which states that, when the university makes decisions about where to invest its money, “corporate policies or practices [which] create substantial social injury,” should be avoided. The students asked the board to consider the impact its investment in fossil fuel extraction has on the environment and the role it plays in climate change.

Stanford students have proven that divestment campaigns can be successful, even at a major university.

“We are proud that our university is responding to student calls for action on climate by demonstrating leadership,” read a statement by Fossil Free Stanford. “Stanford’s commitment to coal divestment is a major victory for the climate movement and for our generation.”

Steven A. Denning, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, praised the student divestment campaign. “Fossil Free Stanford catalyzed an important discussion,” he said. “We believe this action provides leadership on a critical matter facing our world and is an appropriate application of the university’s investment responsibility policy.”

Divestment is not just for universities. Websites like gofossilfree.org and wearepowershift.org explain that these types of campaigns can be applied to any institution that currently invests in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas—including cities, counties, and religious institutions.

Stanford does not release specific information regarding their investments, so it’s unclear exactly how much money had been invested in companies that engage in coal mining or where that money will be invested now.

What is clear is that Stanford students have proven that divestment campaigns can be successful, even at a major university.


This article was written by Liz Pleasant for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Liz is a graduate of the University of Washington's program in Anthropology, and an online editorial intern at YES! Follow her on Twitter @lizpleasant.

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