University of Edinburgh Senior Vice-Principal Charlie Jeffery has defended a decision by the University Court to explore partial divestment from fossil fuels but not make explicit commitments, in remarks made at a closed press conference attended by The Student.
The University revealed yesterday a partial change to the university’s investment policy to divest only from companies involved in the extraction of coal and tar sands, as long as alternative sources of energy are available and where companies do not invest in low-carbon technologies. The university claimed that it would seek to change the behaviour of fossil fuel companies through a policy of ‘engagement’ and by requiring companies to report on their emissions levels in order to generate a comparison from across the sector.
The Court’s decision was unanimous.
According to the Fossil Fuel Review Group report, which informed the decision, a policy of full divestment may have led to a ‘sweeping and undue limitation to academic freedom’ to research and teaching in the fossil fuel sector at the University. The report also found that the ‘lack of fully developed alternatives’ to fossil fuels in developing countries may mean that a policy of full divestment may ‘jeopardise human well-being’ in developing countries.
By stopping short of full divestment from fossil fuels, the decision angered student campaigners. Activists had hoped that Edinburgh would become the fourth UK university to pursue a policy of full divestment, following the universities of Glasgow, Bedfordshire and London SOAS.
But in remarks to the press, Senior Vice-Principal Jeffery defended the decision as a pragmatic approach in a complicated environment where absolutes were over-idealistic.
Speaking on the activist movement, he said: “I would say there’s been a rather easy tendency [among those opposed] to portray things in a black and white way, around an issue which is not black and white, and which can be approached in a number of different ways. We have approached it in a way which might not conform to some expectations, but which we think is right.”
Asked by The Student about the impact of Glasgow’s policy of full divestment on the decision, Jeffery said: “We are not treating this issue as being defined by two poles of divestment or non-divestment. Our focus has been on emissions to the atmosphere and that is a very different way of approaching the issue and it leads us to the recommendations and that we wish to press any company to disclose its carbon emissions and work to become best in class.
The Student also pressed Jeffery on the issue of academic freedom and how this contributed to the decision not to pursue full divestment.
Jeffery responded: “I think the issue is more about perception. One of the founding values of any university is academic freedom and the ability of colleagues and students to use their intellect in creative ways for their subjects and some might think that academic freedom might be challenged if a change in investment policy suggested that a particular activity was morally in question.”
In its report, the University did not explicitly commit to taking any divestment action, instead setting a framework by which it would proceed to determine the viability of doing so.
When asked about the possibility that the University might not actually divest any money, Jeffery pointed to the process set in place.
“We have set out a policy with conditions,” he said.
“Conditions are either met or they are not met.”
Jeffery also stood by the University’s decision to keep last month’s Central Management Group’s report confidential until after the Court had made its decision this week, characterising it as “absolutely standard University procedure.”
“This is a standard form of university decision making informed by a review group set up to look at this issue: an expert group, not an opinion survey group,” he said.
“It was a group set up to look at evidence with a composition which drew into different sectors on the issue, including vice presidents of the [Edinburgh University] Students Association.”
Following the announcement, Jeffery was angrily confronted by protester Mark De Vries, a lecturer in Materials Chemistry at the University.
Speaking to The Student, De Vries outlined his problems with the report: “The report fails people and students. The University looks after its short term interests. It is not acting in the interest of the students or people of Scotland or people in third world countries. It’s just acting in its own short term interests. It’s also – and this is more serious – acting in the interest of large corporations.”
He continued: “I think people have turned into machines. In a corporation that works on the principle of profit, you can kind of still understand it. For a university who is a charitable institution that is based entirely on safeguarding the future, its business is the future: the future of their students, the future that the sciences are supposed to improve. That’s the business of the future. And it just acts in its own short term interests.”
Responding to the decision, Kirsty Haigh, student campaigner with Edinburgh People & Planet, said: “Despite the overwhelming support for fossil fuel divestment in a public consultation, the University have proved they are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. For the past three years every piece of evidence we’ve provided proved that students, staff and alumni want full divestment.
“Our university claims to be a leader in sustainability but today have clearly proved this is not the case.”
Luke Evens, environmental officer of Glasgow University’s Student Representative Council (SRC), said: “Following Glasgow University’s decision to divest in October 2014, we have since learned that the decision has not affected any funding to the university. We are proud that the academic community at Glasgow has united to tackle the threat of climate change, and we call on Edinburgh University to do the same.”
When asked whether the University would take into account further campaigns by People and Planet, Jeffery was sanguine.
“Of course,” he said. “We always listen to students.”
Feature image: Ethan DeWitt