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School to consider new policy for investing endowment funds

Lincoln Journal Star

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    LINCOLN, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — The push from students for the University of Nebraska to divest from fossil fuels began well before Veronica “Roni” Miller joined the Board of Regents in the spring of 2020.

After he was announced as the next university leader in late 2019, President Ted Carter was questioned by students at a public forum to articulate his thoughts on climate change, and pressed to commit NU to divestment.

Following the lead of other colleges and universities across the country, student government leaders from each of NU’s four campuses adopted legislation urging the university to pull its investments from oil and gas companies.

Meanwhile, student activists from across NU have urged the university to provide greater transparency in how it invests endowed funds at meetings of the Board of Regents.

And Miller ran to become the student body president of the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska on a platform pushing for the university to become more environmentally sustainable.

So when she became the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s students’ voice on the Board of Regents, Miller said the groundwork was there to push for a change.

“The ask was already there,” said Miller, who will graduate next month with degrees in Spanish and political science. “There was a conversation about how we get this done and how we work through this.”

At its April 9 meeting, the Board of Regents will consider adding an “environmental, social and governance criteria” policy — commonly referred to as ESG — for investing the roughly $370 million in Fund N, the endowment funds controlled by the university.

Currently, only about 2% of the investments held in Fund N are in fossil fuel companies, down from 6.5% a year ago, the university said.

The rest of the university’s $1.7 billion endowment is managed by the NU Foundation, which also uses an ESG criteria when considering investments, a foundation spokeswoman said.

Put simply, the new policy would allow NU leaders to consider how its investments reflect the university’s declared commitment to sustainability and responsible stewardship, rather than make investments exclusively seeking profit.

“Adding ESG criteria will create valuable flexibility for the board in determining where to invest our funds, without boxing anyone in with rigid rules that don’t account for necessary nuances,” the agenda item to be considered by regents reads.

NU said it will also require all of the companies in its Fund N portfolio to have sustainability plans in place by 2025. Any new energy company will also need to have committed to meaningful action to reduce its carbon footprint, the policy states.

The proposed policy was the result of extensive discussions between student leaders pushing for full divestment, NU administrators who would be responsible for implementing it, and regents with business and finance backgrounds initially skeptical of the idea, Miller said.

It was often daunting, the Crete native said: “I’m very conscious of the fact that in these meetings, I’m usually the only young person, and the only woman.”

But with the goal of getting something passed before her time on the board was up, Miller said she took advantage of the opportunities “to meet those people where they are,” all the while advocating on behalf of the students who wanted to see a change occur.

“It’s easy for this conversation about investments, the fossil fuel industry, climate change and global warming to very easily get politicized and become an argument or a space for misunderstandings,” Miller said. “We had to keep finding progress and ways to move this forward.”

Ultimately, Miller said finding an agreement the regents could get behind was made easier by the work of others, particularly the students in Divest NU, who in addition to making their case during public meetings had also continued to reach out to regents on their own.

Miller said their efforts became “a huge selling point” for the regents who were leery at first, but fed into the compromise that was reached.

Carter said the students deserve credit for opening and continuing a dialogue about sustainability across the NU system.

“Our students are passionate champions for sustainability, and we’re listening,” he said. “The chancellors and I share that commitment to being good stewards of our natural resources and we want to align our investments accordingly.”

Unlike the steps taken by other universities, both in Nebraska and across the country, including members of the Big Ten, NU’s policy doesn’t put the institution on a path to full divestment.

According to an explanation of the new policy, NU said “Nebraskans can appreciate that this discussion is more complex than that,” acknowledging there will be disagreement on how to move forward.

That may run counter to the position advocated by Divest NU, which has pushed for full divestment by 2025 and pledged to begin a campaign of direct action, including protests and sit-ins, if regents do not act.

Miller said she believes Divest NU will “see this progress for what it’s worth” as its members continue their campaign pushing for broader environmental sustainability policies from the university.

“You can recognize and appreciate and still want more,” Miller said, adding more is coming.

“This is not the end, this is the very beginning of our work,” she said. “I’m hopeful for the April 9 Board of Regents meeting and the changes that happen thereafter.”

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