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  • Sadie Brown

"Mean Green" Means Funding Fossil Fuels

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

How a top-rated university on renewable energy is funding the fossil fuel industry.

It’s impossible not to notice the three giant wind turbines next to brand-new Apogee stadium and not think about the University of North Texas as a shining example of renewable energy and sustainability.

UNT is publicly committed to sustainable energy - emphasis on “publicly” - and holds a top ranking among sustainably powered colleges, but in private the UNT Foundation is invested in major fossil fuel corporations like Chevron, Exxon Mobile, BP, Shell and others, according to the foundation’s website.

The foundation’s Vice President of Investments, Alfred Lockwood commented on the foundation’s ethical obligations via email.

“The University of North Texas Foundation’s sole purpose is to grow private assets supporting the University of North Texas’s educational mission through investment management and administration of endowments and planned gifts contributed by donors.”

Separate from the university, but not exactly…

The foundation is a private non-profit 501(c)3 that is legally separate from the university. It was created to raise and grow funds which will be used to support UNT’s mission in the form of things like scholarships, and program funding.

This technicality largely protects the foundation from the same laws and regulations that apply to publicly funded institutions, a point highlighted on the foundation’s website as a “unique advantage”. Still, UNT and the UNT Foundation are inextricably linked; it is likely that neither would exist without the other.

Holding foundations accountable

The separation of university foundations from the public institutions they support has been the subject of much controversy. It poses questions about whether foundations should be obligated to consider the broader goals and values of the institutions they fund.

In UNT’s case, its foundation provided over $70 million in funding over the past 25 years, according to Lockwood. Some of that money was made through investing in the fossil fuel industry, directly conflicting with the university’s sustainability goals of going 100 percent renewable.

Some universities drew a line in the sand and began pulling investments from the fossil fuel industry. Most recently, the University of California system divested some $13 billion in endowment funds and $70 billion in pension funds after years of campaigning from student activists, according to The Nation.

Investments at UNT

Although the UNT Foundation did not specifically comment on its investments in fossil fuels and the dollar figures are vague, an investigation into the stock holdings of the foundation’s investment fund managers give a rough picture of the numbers.

UNT’s endowment is worth over $200 million, according to Lockwood.

This money is invested with fund managers like Vanguard, Sands Capital or Baird Asset Management. Each fund has a specific investment strategy, diversification to minimize risk, and a portfolio that show the percentage of the fund invested in each holding.

Without knowing how much money the foundation has invested in each management fund, it’s difficult to calculate an exact amount invested in fossil fuels. But each fund does require a minimum investment amount which can then be used to calculate a base amount that the foundation has invested in fossil fuels.

Are principles practical?

UNT’s Associate Professor Adam Briggle, who holds a PhD in Environmental Science isn’t ready to pick up a sign in protest just yet. He said that divestment in fossil fuels “may be mostly a symbolic thing” because ultimately most industries depend on fossil fuels in some way. He thinks there are more practical ways that UNT can practice its commitment to sustainability.

“We need to have policies with teeth and not just statements of aspirations,” Briggle said.

A statement on sustainability from the UNT website:

"UNT Continues to build on its legacy of conservation and environmentalism, where we teach green, research green and simply are green in everything we do."

Apparently, even the aspirational statements on sustainability, don’t apply to the UNT Foundation or its investments.

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