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Why the full, careful review of divestment proposal matters

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

As the Resources Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) completes its careful consideration of the petition requesting that the University divest and dissociate from fossil fuel companies, I wanted to provide an update to the University community on the next steps and reiterate the importance of this exacting, deliberative process. 

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The committee has been busy and productive since it received the petition in February 2020, all the while following its standard deliberative process. In light of the number of stakeholders with an interest in this question, the Resources Committee has held numerous meetings with Divest Princeton (the petitioners), consulted with the Office of Sustainability, convened with research faculty and University research leadership, conferred with other higher education institutions, and met with the Board of Trustees Committee on Finance. 

Throughout this review, the Resources Committee has systematically considered the criteria for divestment and dissociation set out in guidelines adopted by Princeton’s Board of Trustees in 1997. These guidelines provide the University with a robust, rigorous, tested, and consistent set of processes for considering divestment/dissociation requests.  

I know that some in the University community are eager for the consideration of this proposal to move more quickly or to conclude by a symbolic date, such as Earth Day. However, this process is designed to ensure divestment and disassociation proposals receive a full, careful review, with input from stakeholders across the University community. This careful consideration is what defines the process and what any divestment/dissociation discussion deserves. As a result, this process will not necessarily line up with desired deadlines.

The Resources Committee — comprising University faculty, staff, and students — is expected to provide its recommendations to the Board of Trustees in early May, at which time the recommendations will be made public. It is premature to say what those recommendations will be, but I want to reassure all of the stakeholders with interests in this effort that the committee’s forthcoming report to the trustees will be well-supported by the information gathered through the process.

Once delivered, the Resources Committee’s recommendations will receive serious consideration by the Board. At Princeton, the Board of Trustees has sole responsibility for all investment matters, including the determination of University policy on all investment-driven social responsibility considerations, and they retain the full responsibility for final decisions on such matters. The Resources Committee’s recommendations will serve to inform the trustees’ decisions but will not determine them. It is the trustees’ obligation to give the proposal a thorough consideration of their own. 

Historically, Princeton has maintained a firm presumption against the University as an institution taking a position or playing an active role with respect to external issues of a political, economic, social, moral or legal character. As the Trustees’ 1978 Statement on South Africa put it: “We should be extremely reluctant to override this presumption because to do so may threaten the essential independence of the University.” 

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President Eisgruber elaborated on this crucial principle in a 2015 letter to the Resources Committee. “Princeton, like any great research university, aims to influence society principally by the scholarship we generate and the people we educate, not through economic clout or institutional position-taking. A commitment to robust debate and freedom of inquiry is essential to the quality and credibility of the scholarship and teaching that we do. Because the university seeks to provide an open and unbiased forum for scholarly contestation about key issues of the day, Princeton must be very careful about when and why it takes an institutional position about contested issues.”

Thus, for Princeton, “...the purpose (of dissociation) is not to make political statements, to censure governments, or to pressure either companies or governments to adopt particular policies.” This ethos, noted in the guidelines adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1997, continues to guide the Board’s decision-making today. 

I am confident in the Resources Committee’s process and the diligent manner in which it is being carried out and appreciate the productive conversations with stakeholders that have taken place throughout. 

Jim Matteo is Vice President for Finance and Treasurer of the University as well as a member of the CPUC Resources Committee.

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