CHAPEL HILL — Comparing their movement to the apartheid divestment campaigns in the 1980s, UNC-Chapel Hill student activists are pushing campus leaders to sell off the university’s investments in coal stocks.
Students held a demonstration on campus Wednesday, where they wore yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Beyond Coal.” Then they took their case to a financial committee of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.
Dressed in business attire, three students gave a slide show presentation promoting divestment from energy companies that use coal. They said there are health, environmental and economic reasons to stop supporting coal and invest instead in clean energy.
“This movement is happening on a nationwide scale,” said Anurag Angara, a sophomore from Charlotte. “UNC’s decision should be whether we want to be a leader, in line with UNC tradition, or a follower.”
UNC-CH students started their divestment effort a couple of years ago, and they won 77 percent approval from student voters in a referendum on campus earlier this year.
Now, similar campaigns have sprouted at more than 300 college campuses across the United States, though some are more broadly focused on rejecting all fossil fuels.
“We’re trying to show the university that coal is a human rights issue, and climate change is going to be one of the biggest threats to this generation and future generations to come,” said Jasmine Ruddy, a junior from Morehead City.
The UNC-CH students are taking a moderate approach, focusing only on coal and asking the trustees to appoint a campus group to study divestment and come up with a plan by next spring. At the protest, even their chants were polite: “Divest please, Board of Trustees!”
They argued that increased regulation on the coal industry has already led many plants to shut down. Coal is rapidly becoming a bad financial bet, they said.
“Investors like UNC-Chapel Hill, we think, will be at risk,” said Tait Chandler, a junior from Canada.
It’s unclear how much of UNC-CH’s $2.2 billion endowment is tied up in coal stocks, and UNC-CH officials said they didn’t know. Investments can be spread across mutual funds that include stocks from many companies.
Students flashed a collection of corporate logos from companies they called “the filthy fifteen,” including North Carolina-based Duke Energy.
Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, said in an interview that the company has worked hard to diversify its plans, investing $9 billion in the past decade to build modern, efficient plants. That has allowed Duke Energy to retire nearly 25 percent of its coal fleet.
By the end of the year, the company will have retired seven of 14 coal plants in the state. But all energy sources have tradeoffs, she added, and there is a place for coal in the mix.
“There are a lot of voices in this conversation, but Duke Energy is the entity required to provide electricity at affordable rates and always be available when customers flip the switch,” she said.
Culbert also pointed out that the company is a founding partner of UNC-CH’s Center for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economic Development, giving $1.3 million since last year.
Trustees said they wouldn’t take a vote on the matter but were receptive to a wider campus conversation about coal and energy investments. They complimented the students on their presentation, but said they wouldn’t launch a study group with a predisposition toward divesting.
“You’ve done a very good job presenting one side of the argument,” said Steve Lerner, chairman of the committee. “It’s clearly a complex issue.”
Jeff Brown, a trustee from Charlotte, said he couldn’t support an effort that was specifically aimed toward divestment.
Lerner said the administration will work to establish the parameters of a campus conversation, but he made no promises on divestment or a timetable for the effort.
Chancellor Carol Folt said the university could bring in faculty with expertise and representatives from the energy sector to work on the issue.
“We like to take on problems and think them through,” she said, “but we always want to do it without knowing what the answer is going to be. But that doesn’t also mean there won’t be several answers.”