URI Rejects Divestment in Fossil Fuels

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — The University of Rhode Island is the latest school in the state to reject a call to divest its investments from the fossil-fuel industry.

In a March 14 letter to Fossil Free Rhode Island, URI Foundation president Michael Smith said divestment from the university's $110 million endowment could hinder investment performance. The foundation’s fossil-fuel investments are also commingled with other investments making them difficult to extract, he wrote.

“The foundation is working to achieve strong risk-adjusted returns and feel this is best achieved by considering all potential investment opportunities,” Smith wrote.

Last November, Smith met with URI students and faculty from Fossil Free R.I. and Divest URI about divesting fossil-fuel investments from the university's endowment. Peter Nightingale, a URI physics professor and a founding member of Fossil Free R.I., and student Thomas-Anthony Viscione said they anticipated a response in December, but only just received the news. Nightingale said he expected the foundation to decline the request.

“The URI Foundation's no letter certainly has added urgency to the cause,” he said.

Viscione, a sophomore, called the decision "flagrant hypocrisy." "The University of Rhode Island wants to be a leader in educating the public about climate change, and if the foundation continues to fund these investments while the university strives to mitigate its effects, what does that say about URI?" he asked. 

Viscione and Nightingale said they are working with URI alumni to establish escrow accounts for holding donations until the foundation divests itself from fossil fuels.

"The foundation is violating the university's mission statement. It is not being a leader. It is not thinking big," Viscione said during a March 19 climate forum hosted by the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition at URI.

Smith did not return requests for comment.

Divestment campaigns are also ongoing at Brown University and at the Rhode Island School of Design. In October, Brown’s board of directors also declined to divest from coal companies.