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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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OPINION | Tulane must play catch-up on climate

Maggie Pasterz

Over the summer, Tulane University professor Jesse Keenan made a trip to the White House to testify before the U.S. Senate. The topic was the burden of climate change on United States infrastructure. Keenan, a real estate and urban planning professor, said the U.S. was behind in climate-sensitive infrastructure and projected costs to maintain current infrastructure would grow by tens of billions of dollars each year.

Keenan made news last year for signing a letter demanding that elite institutions stop accepting fossil fuel money funding climate change research. Unfortunately for Keenan and Tulane, the signature left him vulnerable to the rhetoric of Louisiana Senator John Neely Kennedy. 

“The Murphy Family of Murphy Oil and the Deming family of Murphy Oil have recently given Tulane $25 million,” Kennedy said, “You don’t see the hypocrisy here?”

Perhaps Kennedy is right. For a university that students, administrators and alumni love to deem “elite,” Tulane is lacking in climate and sustainability initiatives, let alone curtailment of oil-backed donor influence. 

In recent years, the term “divestment” has become a buzzword on college campuses and in the finance world. The term entails an institution selling off investments tied to the fossil fuel industry. Two-hundred and fifty educational institutions, including Harvard University, Yale University and most recently New York University, have all announced steps towards divestment. 

Divestment is easier said than done for Tulane. As Kennedy pointed out, Tulane has a long-standing history with the fossil fuel industry, and its endowment, at $2 billion, does not exactly play in the same league as the Ivies.

“In Tulane’s credit, it’s not easy to divest from fossil fuels overnight,” Keenan said, “and because they have so much interconnections with the oil industry, it’ll take time.”

Time, yes, but also transparency and willingness.

According to an independent auditor’s report, Tulane invested $15.5 million and $9.2 million in Murphy Oil Corporation common stock, but very few know the actual amount invested in fossil fuels. As a private school, Tulane does not have to disclose its investments, but Tulane President Mike Fitts maintains that Tulane encourages the companies it has invested in to “further the goal of a carbon-neutral economy.” 

For many students, this is not enough.

“Not to say they’re doing evil, nefarious things with it,” Nico Acosta, member of Tulane environmental group Sunrise Tulane, said, “but as students, we should be able to know where this money is going to and how we’re benefiting from it.”

For years, Tulane has faced pressure to divest. Countless resolutions have been passed by the Tulane Undergraduate Assembly and in 2019, Divest Tulane organized a sit-in with over 70 students outside of President Fitts’s office. These arguments do not exclusively involve climate change — some students maintain it is the university’s fiduciary responsibility to shift away from investment in dying industries. Yet in the end, nothing really changes.

So what now? How do these campus groups avoid wasting their time? Maybe the answer resides in educating students through a more investigative approach. That may entail working to expose the true amount of money and connections the university has in oil and gas. Enough digging may reveal the real contributions to society Tulane makes by investing in certain private equity and mutual funds. This may run contrary to how Tulane intends to project itself.

Some members of the Sustainability and Divestment committee within TUA seem to be taking this approach. Still, as full-time students, not everyone is Woodward and Bernstein. “It’s kind of like we’re a little in over our head,” Adina Weizman, a member of the committee who expressed the need for students with financial backgrounds to aid in their efforts, said.

Perhaps students should widen the scope of their goals. Some may find Tulane’s ties to an industry arguably responsible for the jeopardy of the New Orleans community embarrassing; others would say our endowment is performing great and endangering donor support in favor of virtue-signaling would be counterproductive. In my opinion, what is most embarrassing is the lack of initiative for quick, tangible areas of improvement. 

“We are way behind our peers in terms of climate investments,” Keenan said, citing Duke University and Rice University as schools investing in geothermal and solar technologies, while also implementing detailed sustainability action plans unrivaled by Tulane.

Take Emory University for example, a school often compared to Tulane in regard to location and academic standards. Emory provides a vast array of plans and updates on sustainability measures, including increases in clean energy use, food sustainability and $54 million of its endowment dedicated to investing in various climate solutions. 

Tulane has plans like these, albeit watered down in detail with distant goals. One entails a new 30-year partnership with Bernhard Energy, including plans for a solar facility. Greenhouse gas emissions are also tracked, while carbon neutrality appears to be a goal by 2050. Yet, one would be hard-pressed attempting to find anything around campus to support this, including a single solar panel.

“Everyone’s investing in these green roofs and better drainage systems,” Weizman said, “Tulane doesn’t have any of that, our campus floods constantly. The green projects that people do want to start are often very underfunded.”

Weizman said there are plenty of innovative ideas from Tulane students, but without administrators to work with students regularly, nothing will get done.

Step one requires a more robust office of sustainability, an idea Keenan advocates for, with an office larger than the single employee currently on staff. This would allow for the collection and distribution of more detailed information on actual progress regarding climate and sustainability. As Keenan points out, “We really don’t have the leadership, we don’t have the manpower … Therefore,” he said, “our commitments for reduction in emissions is suspect.” 

This revitalized office would also allow the opportunity for the administrators to meet regularly with students to foster their ideas. Tulane often promotes its partnership with Glass Half Full, a nonprofit founded by Tulane students dedicated to recycling glass into sand and using it to restore Louisiana’s dwindling coastline. Imagine the increase in similar ventures with improved unity between eco-friendly students and the administration.

Juniors and seniors remember the Hurricane Ida semester, and all Tulanians understand the legacy of Katrina. The endowment will continue to be an issue, but students can advocate for so much more in the meantime. As for the university, Tulane should be proud of its overall effect on New Orleans, its $3.14 billion impact on the city is difficult to downplay. All the same, if it truly cares about more than its reputation, the university would be wise to catch up with its peers. 

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