Wadham College’s governing body has approved a statement resolving to fully divest the College’s endowment from coal and tar sands, tobacco and ‘controversial’ arms manufacturing.
The College’s estimated £107 million endowment will now be prevented from investing in companies that gain a significant portion of revenue from these industries.
The decision is a major victory for student campaigners, who have been pressuring colleges and the University to withdraw financial support for the fossil fuel, tobacco and arms industries.
Wadham has not committed to divesting from other forms of fossil fuel, such as oil and natural gas, or much of the arms industry.
The College will also take steps to ensure that its indirect investments are subject to more substantive ethical guidelines, although these have yet to be clarified.
The statement is the culmination of two years of intense lobbying by Wadham students. Already in November 2017, they passed a motion in Wadham Student Union expressing their support for the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) and calling on the College to divest.
In a joint statement, Wadham SU President Sulamaan Rahim and Environment and Ethics Officer Theo Harris said: “We’re both incredibly proud to have been involved in this final part of the process to get Wadham as a college body to interrogate its role in the climate crisis that we currently face. The new ethical investment policy of the college represents a concrete step in this direction.”
The two praised the work of Harris’s predecessor Harry Penrose, who spearheaded the campaign. They described it as “incredible” that the campaign now “has culminated in tangible structural change on the college level.”
Calling on other colleges to “examine their responsibilities around the climate crisis”, they said: “A huge part of divestment is communicating the message that our current practices are wrong and we need to change now.“
Harris and Rahim expressed hope that other colleges now will follow suit, and that similar guidelines will be adopted by Oxford University Endowment Management (OUem), a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Oxford. OUem manages £3 bn for the University, 25 colleges, and six associated charities.
Currently, OUem’s website lists as the only absolute restrictions on investments that: “The Oxford Endowment Fund does not hold direct investments in tobacco companies, manufacturers of weapons illegal under UK law, or companies whose main business is the extraction of thermal coal and oil sands.”
Talks between Wadham SU representatives and college administration commenced in Hilary term 2018. Harry Penrose told Cherwell that, despite some disagreement, the college “generally took our concerns seriously”.
In Trinity the same year, whilst talks were underway, an open letter expressed students, faculty, and staff’s “deep concern” that the college profited from investments in companies which extract fossil fuels. The letter had 128 signatories and urged Wadham to “uphold its name as a progressive and liberal college” and to divest from companies on the Carbon Underground 200 list.
Following what Penrose described as “very productive” talks in Michaelmas 2018, Governing Body approved the creation of a working group. It comprised members of Wadham SU and MCR, as well as tutors, college staff, and alumni. The statement which was recently approved is the product of their work.
Julia Peck, Chair of OCJC called the Governing Body’s decision “a thrilling victory for divestment at Oxford.”
Echoing Harris’s hope that other colleges would follow, she told Cherwell: “We’re expecting similar policy shifts at several colleges in which we work, and working towards a wave of divestment among colleges that will push full divestment at the University from below.
“Wadham will play an important role: it’s now in a position to lead the way amongst constituent investors of Oxford University Endowment Management — which includes 24 other colleges — to ask OUem to finally divest fully, as the student body has demanded.”
Co-Director for Campaigns at People & Planet J Clarke, who has helped organise the national student divestment movement, also pointed a finger at OUem. Clarke told Cherwell: “Oxford University Endowment Management increasingly reveals itself as uninterested in the wants and needs of those it claims to benefit – young people who will feel the damaging effects of climate change in their lifetime.”
Clarke expressed satisfaction that Wadham is now “stepping up to become a leader among Oxford colleges”.
They added: “Students at Wadham have done a fantastic job organising for this victory, and it is clear full divestment is the only acceptable position in a time of climate emergency: if it is wrong to wreck the climate it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”