Yale University Ducks on Fossil Fuel Divest Decision--and Fails Leadership 101

As Yale students returned to classes before Labor Day, they were informed by President Peter Salovey that the University had rejected student demands to divest the endowment of stocks that are among the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

Many of us working behind the scenes had hoped Yale would seize this opportunity to demonstrate real leadership on an issue where leaders are needed. Instead, by ducking the decision to divest from Big Coal, the Yale Corporation ignored the best -- and maybe only -- real platform that this distinguished University has to move the needle on climate change. And they missed an opportunity to join Stanford as one of the few elite universities to divest from companies whose principal business is mining coal.

In his announcement, President Salovey termed climate change "the most important issue that faces the world in our time." The administration, however, did not put muscle behind the words, treating the student demands as an issue to be managed away, and instituting instead some lukewarm measures that sound good on paper.

What we have here is a failure of leadership. The Yale Corporation could have used some of the lessons I was taught up the hill at the Yale School of Management. I hope they come in handy when the Yale Corporation reviews its decision -- a necessary step out of respect for the generation that will inherit the mess we are leaving behind:

Leadership Lesson #1: Make Sure You are Asking the Right Question.
The decision to divest from fossil fuels is a political decision more than an economic decision, and not a time for intellectual parsing.

The following explanation was given by the Yale Daily News on the work of the Corporation subcommittee: "While members of the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility acknowledged that climate change poses a grave threat to human welfare, they said divestment or shareholder engagement as a precondition to divestment were neither the right way to address this issue nor likely to be effective."

No one, least of all campaigners for divestment, thinks dumping some stocks solves the problem. Yale doesn't have the scale, power or influence to move markets. It does, however, have the scale, power and influence to be a catalytic force in the call for action on pricing carbon. Joining the call for divestment of fossil fuels is a small act of solidarity that, because of the Yale brand, would add great vigor to the growing national student movement and hope for a global solution.

Leadership Lesson #2: Get the Right People at the Table.
Real engagement with student leaders would have helped the committee move past the trap of framing the question too narrowly. Students bring a different lens to the decision--more focused on the broader political landscape than on Yale itself.

Students could have helped President Salovey to reframe the issue; to say "Yes/And," rather than "No/But"--as in "YES, we are signing--although we know that divesting from fossil fuels will not directly solve the problem" and also, "here are all the other things that we pledge to do that go beyond the small act of solidarity to bring even greater meaning to our pledge." Students and other voices, including members of the Corporation who failed to weigh in, could have also helped Yale think and act like the global institution it aims to be; to align itself with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the work he is doing to assure a global pricing protocol on carbon.

Leadership Lesson #3: The Importance of Doing the Right Thing.
The decision to divest is a question of morality, not markets. The financial impact--either way--is nil. In the context of a great University that stands for science, taking a bold act now is the right thing to do. A call to divest has much more visibility and impact than the decision to pass the buck along to outside money managers, which the endowment has now been instructed to do.

Yale's Administration has failed to see Climate for what it is: a moral issue that will cause irreparable damage to the people least able to tolerate it, and that is already contributing to greater human suffering and real political conflicts that are destabilizing.

Rather than stand tall and use the Yale brand, the Administration chose to protect the brand on a divisive issue -- sitting with the rest of the Ivies and rearranging deck chairs (which will no doubt look beautiful as the ship sinks).

Yale has no reason to be afraid of using its voice, when an entire parade of voices is needed. It will energize students, alumni AND set the institution apart.

Judith Samuelson (Yale School of Management, Class of '82)