Shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, more than 300 students returned to the University of Colorado Boulder campus to attend a peaceful climate march. In their protest, the students and faculty demanded that CU divest from fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, since the march, little has been offered to date by university leaders for concrete action.

As a hub of climate change research and innovation, CU’s actions on climate change arguably matter more in the public sphere than most. Yet other academic centers are already leaping well ahead on divestment. 

According to one database that tracks global commitments, dozens of universities in the U.S. and hundreds in Europe have beaten us to the punch in pledging to divest from fossil fuels in full. The list includes a variety of institutions ranging in rank and size, with the most prominent schools including Harvard, Yale and Oxford universities.

Why the University of Colorado hasn’t made the same commitment remains a mystery — especially as the current board maintains a left-leaning majority. As a former faculty member, I know firsthand the topic has long been discussed among staff and students, a sentiment once again highlighted by last week’s campus protest.

Asked for comment on whether CU would be willing to commit to divestment in light of new voices on campus calling for change, Board of Regents Chair Leslie Smith declined to secure this action at present on behalf of the board. In her response, Smith, a Democrat, cited reasons including upcoming board turnover and the need for more board member education.

“Divestment is not on an upcoming board agenda,” Smith replied, “but I believe my colleagues on the board are open to the discussion.” 

Smith continued, “As you may know, three new regents (elected in November) will join the board in January. This will be among the many issues at the university they will learn about. With its complexity, it is fair that they have a chance to understand it before we consider board action.”

The reason to divest from fossil fuels is simple: Money and optics make the world go ‘round. 

CU has more than $270 million wrapped up in fossil fuel investments, or roughly 5.4% of the university’s total investment pool, according to Smith. This money helps future fossil fuel development. By maintaining assets in this manner, CU leaders send a strong message that they continue to support these activities. 

As a counterpoint to the school’s lack of divestment, Smith offered that CU also invests 10.5%, or roughly double the investments in fossil fuels, in companies that integrate sustainability into business practices. She also noted that CU had signed the Principles of Responsible Investing under the United Nations, an effort that intends to learn more about investment implications related to environmental, social and governance issues.

☀ MORE IN OPINION

Still, any meaningful support for timely investment changes by the Board of Regents feels lukewarm at best — especially given the lack of response from any board member despite individual inquiry for this column, regardless of their registration as Democrat or Republican. 

According to Smith, no known enrollment impacts to CU presently exist for not divesting from fossil fuels. However, the generations set to attend college in the coming years — and the generations likely to pay for it — overwhelmingly care about addressing climate change, according to public data. As social pressure mounts, it’s possible future students would decline to attend CU in favor of more forward-looking schools. 

Top leaders at the University of Colorado like to boast that the campus holds a strong theme of sustainability and climate change mitigation. But if more decisive actions to divest are not taken soon — especially as other institutions leap ahead — it will become more challenging for leaders to maintain a climate-friendly narrative. 

After all, it’s hard to claim you care about climate change while simultaneously investing hundreds of millions to fund the activities that fuel it.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

Trish Zornio

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.