ANDERSON — Campaigns encouraging Americans to move away from using energy derived from fossil fuels have been active for decades.

But as concerns mount over global warming and its underlying causes, climate activists have taken their message to college campuses across the country. Increasingly, they’re appealing to universities’ research budgets and investments in an effort to curb the influence fossil fuel companies have in those areas.

In Indiana, pressure has been brought to bear in the form of protests on campuses including Indiana University in Bloomington, where a grassroots group has called on the IU Foundation to make changes in its investment portfolio to support more green energy initiatives.

“Investment sheets are moral documents,” said Ross Martinie Eller during a community town hall event last fall on the IU campus. “This is our moment to say to the IU Foundation it doesn’t matter what maximizes profits if you sell out future generations.”

That meeting served as a springboard for Sunrise Bloomington, a nonprofit organization comprised of students, faculty and community members, to launch a campaign to urge IU to divest its investments in fossil fuels in favor of more sustainable, greener initiatives. The movement includes an online petition asking IU President Pamela Whitten and the university’s board of trustees to publicly disclose the school’s fossil fuel investments; fully phase out those investments; and reinvest the money in funds that, according to the petition, “promote sustainability and respect for the environment.”

The IU Foundation manages an endowment worth more than $3 billion. As a nonprofit, however, it is not subject to the state’s public records laws. Foundation officials stress that nearly all the money they oversee is privately gifted and has specific conditions for its use.

“Upwards of 99% of the funds under our control are given and governed by legally binding gift agreements which explicitly state what that money can be used for,” said Matt Kavgian, director of strategic communications and projects for the IU Foundation. “There’s no autonomy in the foundation to direct money here or there for our own ideas.”

Kavgian provided The Herald Bulletin a document noting that, for more than a decade, the IU Foundation had a policy target percentage to be invested in traditional energy assets such as oil, gas and energy infrastructure. However, the document states that target was reduced in 2016 and eliminated in 2020. The university, it notes, has not made any new commitments to traditional energy since 2017.

“We don’t really get involved with structuring our endowment to try to address political or social concerns,” he said. “With over three quarters of a million living alumni, with, as you can imagine, a fairly wide bunch of views on any number of topics, it would be impossible to structure an investment portfolio to please everybody.”

He acknowledged, however, that the university’s philosophy regarding its investments and endowments is likely to continue to evolve as green technology moves closer to the mainstream.

“We’re not in a vacuum in understanding that there is an energy transition taking place, and that the long-term trend is moving towards more renewable energy,” Kavgian said. “Renewables are the future, and we are investing accordingly as part of that transition.”

Officials at Indiana State University, which raised more than $29 million last year – including $4.3 million in gifts to its endowment – said they’ve not heard directly from groups with opinions on the school’s financial connections to traditional energy sources.

“Our investment portfolio is highly diversified and we don’t have significant concentrations of assets allocated to fossil fuel companies,” said Dan Riley, a member of the ISU Foundation’s board of directors who co-chairs its investment committee.

“Climate change is certainly an important topic,” he added. “To date, we have not created an investment mandate focused on climate change and/or specific investment vehicles focused on environmental, social and governance factors.”

At Purdue University, a faculty-led effort to craft a plan that would divest the school from its fossil fuel investments failed to pass the University Senate in the spring. Proponents have vowed to try again, but acknowledged that the university’s long-standing research partnerships with oil and gas companies may make such legislation a hard sell.

About 3.5% of Purdue’s $3.58 billion endowment is invested in the energy sector, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Representatives at the Purdue Research Foundation, the organization charged with overseeing the endowment, did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
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