More than 250 professors at the University of Chicago have called on the school to fight climate change by ridding itself of fossil fuel holdings – a gesture that would have exceptional resonance from the former home of Barack Obama and alma mater of current presidential contender Bernie Sanders.
In a symbolic show of solidarity with student activists, professors urged the elite private university to purge its $7.6bn endowment of coal, oil and gas companies, citing the “universal and existential” threat posed by climate change.
The petition, which was made available to the Guardian, was endorsed by professors from more than 50 departments, in all representing about 10% of faculty.
“We believe that profiting from these industries conflicts with the paramount social value of avoiding significant and permanent degradation of our planet that, if left unchecked, will adversely affect all of us, personally and as an institution,” the petition said.
Student leaders of the Stop Funding Climate Change campaign have been pressing the university to dump its fossil fuel holdings as part of the rapidly growing divestment movement.
Robert Zimmer, the university’s president, has said divestment is “unlikely”, citing the university’s tradition of political neutrality.
But campaigners hope that faculty support will notch up the pressure. “We wanted to let the undergraduates realize that it is not just a stone wall,” said Trevor Price, an ecologist who signed the petition.
The university is closely associated with two leading climate champions. Obama taught at the law school before entering politics, and chose the University of Chicago as the site for his presidential library. Sanders has also pushed for climate change legislation, and recently called global warming the greatest current threat to US national security.
Obama has given tacit support to the fossil fuel divestment cause, urging students to “invest, divest” in a 2013 speech at Georgetown University. Sanders has pledged to boycott campaign contributions from coal, oil and gas companies.
On campus, however, activists say they are fighting against a university convention of political neutrality, codified in a report dating from the era of anti-Vietnam protests in the 1960s.
A spokesman for the university suggested the university was still contributing to the fight against climate change through its academic work.
“Through the work of researchers and students, the University of Chicago is creating extensive knowledge with global impact concerning resource consumption and climate change, their diverse effects on the environment, and ways of responding effectively,” said spokesman Jeremy Manier in an email.
But campaigners argued the university should reconsider its position, given the threat posed by climate change, and argued that research is no longer enough.
“I think the university has a much larger responsibility than in the past,” said Nadia Perl, a second-year student and leader of the divestment campaign. “The university has an ethical responsibility to make this kind of statement.”
For more than a decade, universities have been the proving grounds of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which has since moved off campus and into the realms of charitable foundations and institutional investing. In the biggest victory of all, California’s state legislature last year ordered the country’s two biggest pension funds, Calpers and Calstrs, to dump their coal holdings.
By the time of the Paris climate summit, more than 500 individuals and institutions in control of more than $3.4 trillion in assets had committed to some form of divestment, according to Ellen Dorsey, the director of the Wallace Global Fund, who has championed the movement.
Dorsey said the collapse of the coal industry in the US, as well as historic low global oil prices, have presented yet more reasons for institutions to get out of fossil fuels. “The financial arguments alone should be getting traction at key universities,” she said.
But the picture on college campuses remains mixed. The University of California system has quit some of its fossil fuel holdings. Among private universities, Stanford and Georgetown have winnowed out some investments, but Harvard has refused to divest its enormous portfolio. At MIT, students held a sit-in lasting eight weeks, but broke up for winter break without any concessions from the university.
Mark Courtney, a professor of a social work who signed the petition, said he believed the divestment movement was raising public awareness about climate change and the role of major institutions in funding climate change.
“I remain doubtful the board of trustees will divest,” he said, “but I think drawing attention to the issue through the university’s role in financing fossil fuel investments around the world is a worthwhile endeavor.”