June 15, 2018

Cambridge University ‘captured by financial interests’ as divestment rejected once again

Press release by Cambridge Zero Carbon Society

CAMBRIDGE, UK — Cambridge University’s Council has announced its decision not to divest its £6.3 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, despite huge pressure from students and staff, and a last-minute intervention by leading politicians including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

In a rare move, four of the Council’s trustees dissented from the decision and criticised the University’s governance team, reflecting, in the words of campaigners, the “unanimous desire on the part of the University membership for stronger action on climate breakdown”,.

Council members Nick Gay and Alice Hutchings blasted “the prevailing culture of secrecy and hostility to oversight within the Investment Office” and suggested the case for divestment had not been properly considered by the University’s working group on divestment. The students’ union presidents, who also sit on Council, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that “ it is [inconsistent] with Cambridge’s mission for us to profit from industries that contribute to climate breakdown”.

More than 200 academics spoke out against the decision in a pre-emptive open letter, suggesting that the Council was making “a transparent attempt to thwart the direct and positive action of divestment.” The staff council has previously voiced its support for divestment.

Campaigners reacted in fury, and called for the resignations of the University’s finance department, whom they accuse of subverting the University’s democracy. They demanded a governance review, a move which gained academic backing.

Mary Laven, Professor of Early Modern History at the University, said in a statement: “Our managers often talk about ‘risk management’ and the importance of avoiding ‘reputational damage’. It is hard to imagine a more risky, reputation-damaging moment in the history of the University.”

Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a Reader in English at Gonville & Caius College, suggested that “the University has been bought off by the fossil fuel industry.”

Cambridge has faced large-scale pressure to divest from the fossil fuel industry, which campaigners say is incompatible with the universally-agreed 2C warming limit. The University’s Governing Body has passed a motion for full divestment, as has the student union council, unanimously. Pressure has ramped up in recent months with a banner drop at the 2018 Boat Race and a week-long occupation of the University’s finance offices in the run-up to Council’s meeting.

Council  failed to meet all of its Divestment Working Group’s recommendations, weakening a commitment to divest from coal and tar sands and refusing to establish a 10% Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Fund. Instead, the University has agreed to appoint a dedicated ESG investment officer, a move derided by campaigners as “so meaningless as to be insulting” and “utterly insufficient in the face of climate crisis.”

Campaigners pointed to an independent study by Cambridge academics published last week which argued that “divestment from fossil fuels is both a prudential and necessary thing to do”. JF Mercure, one of the paper’s co-authors, tweeted that the Council’s decision demonstrated “a disdain for its own scientists.”

Eleanor Salter, President of Cambridge Zero Carbon Society said: “Cambridge University has been captured by financial interests, its management is now in thrall to an investment office staffed by profit-hungry mandarins with no regard for democracy or human suffering. Right now Cambridge is not acting like a public university, and is not fulfilling its mission statement to contribute to society, including through sustainability.

Instead we are witnessing a slow-motion palace coup, as the University’s democracy and values are sacrificed at the altar of profit and Big Oil. ‘Sod society, we want profit’ is the message coming from University Council. At a time when universities across the country are turning their back on fossil fuel investments, including Edinburgh, Bristol, Durham and Cardiff in recent months, Cambridge is not just failing to lead, but failing to follow. This marks a day of shame for our University.


Change is needed. We call on the University’s Chief Financial Officer Anthony Odgers, Chief Investment Officer Nick Cavalla and Director of Finance David Hughes, hired from Shell, to resign. Something is rotten in this University – a fundamental overhaul of governance and democracy is required if Cambridge is to truly serve the public good, rather than private profit.”



Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, said: “Cambridge students have powerfully pressed home the real issue–“engagement” with the oil companies is a diversion that costs us time while the planet overheats. The university sides with power and wealth, but from a distance it’s clear who’s winning the battle, as the divestment movement continues to focus attention on climate change and drain resources from the fossil fuel industry. We’re so grateful for the leadership on the ground.”

Jason Scott-Warren, Reader in English at Gonville & Caius College said: ‘The University has been bought off by the fossil fuel industry. We need urgent action to reclaim it from the forces that are destroying the planet.’

Mary Laven, Professor of Early Modern History said: “The University has failed to use 800 years of authority and expertise to take a leadership role in the greatest crisis facing our planet. Our managers often talk about ‘risk management’ and the importance of avoiding ‘reputational damage’. It is hard to imagine a more risky, reputation-damaging moment in the history of the University.”

Dr Nick Evans, Clare College, said: “The University of Cambridge has a moral duty to divest entirely from fossil fuels. As climate catastrophe is already claiming lives and destroying livelihoods around the world, the continued investment of the University in carbon corporations is unacceptable. Senior management has undermined democratic governance and has disregarded opinions of students and staff in order to keep the institution tied to corporations that endanger life on this planet. The University of Cambridge often prides itself on being able to take the long view. Council’s attempt to block the move to full divestment represents the worst kind of short-termism.”

Clement Mouhot, Professor of Mathematical Sciences and fellow of King’s College said: “This decision, propping up the fossil fuel industry in an hour of climate crisis, is an outrageous attack on Cambridge’s democracy. Cambridge is being run like a corporation, not as public university whose mission statement is to contribute to society, including through sustainability. With University management having been complicit in an attack on staff pensions just a few months ago, it is clear that our administration is serving private interests, not its membership and the wider society. Cambridge University needs fundamental democratisation, and it needs it now.” [draft, needs to be confirmed]

Daniel Zeichner, Cambridge MP:  “The University of Cambridge needs to be practicing what it preaches in terms of its statement on investment responsibility and align itself much more closely with ethical investment – which means moving away from investing in the fossil fuel industry. But whatever the ethics, it is the changing economic facts which should allow the University to make the right decision. The economic sustainability of the fossil fuel industry is in serious doubt. As the international community continues to push for low and zero carbon policies, many now predict that the carbon bubble will eventually collapse. The University must take this into account, and act prudently. This week they have the opportunity to make a commitment for the coming years that enables a smooth transition away from dirty fuel once and for all – they should take it”


Further Information on the campaign

Following the publication of the report two weeks ago, 200 Cambridge academics signed an open letter penned by Reader in English at Gonville & Caius College Jason Scott-Warren, which accused the report of treating Cambridge like a corporation and criticised “a transparent attempt to thwart the direct and positive action of divestment.”

Leading politicians including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Green Party Co-Leader Caroline Lucas, as well as 13 other MPs, added their voices to the calls for divestment this week. In a joint statement released on Thursday, “as a leading global educational institution [Cambridge] must take decisive action to end its complicity in destructive climate change.”

Campaigners from the student-led Cambridge Zero Carbon Society have stepped up their campaign in recent months, with a banner drop at the Annual Boat Race and a week-long occupation of the University’s administrative offices, which ended with bailiffs employed by a private contractor specialising in ‘traveller evictions’ forcibly removing protesters.


Contact: Angus Satow, Cambridge Zero Carbon Society Press Officer, angus.satow@gmail.com, +44 7847754046