The ANU Council adopted a socially responsible investment policy last week, to apply to its sizeable investment portfolio, which is estimated to be worth something north of $1 billion.
The new policy aims to avoid investments that are “likely to cause substantial social injury” and instead to promote ethical investments. The Council also pledged to publish a yearly compliance report to ensure the policy is followed. The first such report is due next July.
Over the past two years, the Council has come under increasing student pressure to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. A divestment campaign was launched in 2011 when student activists learnt the ANU owned stock in Metgasco, a coal seam gas company.
The campaign has since grown and is now spearheaded by Fossil Free ANU and backed by a broad church of environmental groups and student organisations. The freshly-drafted investment policy, it would appear, is a direct result of campaigning from these groups.
Reacting to the new policy, Tom Swann of Fossil Free ANU called it a “welcome development” and was “glad that the ANU finally recognised the responsibility it has.” But the policy was still “extremely vague” and a “long way from where it needs to be.”
“The Council did not mention the campaign or the support for divestment, which is the only reason they were considering the policy in the first place. The only mention of screening out fossil fuels was extremely dismissive,” he said.
Several Council members gave their views on the new policy at the Council meeting last Friday.
Chancellor Gareth Evans said the policy goes a “pretty fair distance” but should be treated as a “starting point”. He stressed the point of the policy was “not to codify endless pages of definitions” but to adopt “broad concepts”. He referred to the policies of Stanford and Yale universities as the “gold standard” in the area.
Ms Robin Hughes said she was “very pleased” with the policy and wished to “acknowledge the student representatives” who had pushed for this.Similarly, Professor Andrew MacIntyre, Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific, said he “support[ed] a movement in this direction.”
Some of the Council members expressed caution. Mr David Miles, a member of the Finance Committee, said that a sizeable fraction of the fund was staff superannuation and therefore “not the university’s money”.
“We sit as trustees,” he said, and he argued it was the Council’s responsibility to “act in the best interests of those whose money this is.” Many superannuation funds have a socially responsible investment option and these are “generally the worst performing,” he said.
Mr Graeme Samuel, who chairs the Finance Committee, called the policy “useful” and “challenging”. He also spoke to the difficulty of balancing the university’s duty to make returns with their desire to invest responsibly.
Tom Swann saw things differently: “evidence from analysts suggests you can screen out these investments without jeopardising returns.” He cites studies in the US that suggest screening out fossil fuels from investment portfolios has little impact on risk or returns.