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Endowment 101: UNC washes its hands of fossil-fuel divestment

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Following up on my column of two weeks ago, I did make it to Endowment 101 at UNC-Chapel Hill last Wednesday, where the issue was how the university invests its $2 billion-plus endowment and whether it ought to divest—sell off—its shares in corporations that contribute to global warming.

A new divestment campaign aimed at oil companies and other fossil-fuel offenders is modeled on the successful one mounted against the apartheid regime in South Africa—and corporations doing business there—in the 1980s.

When that campaign began, investment managers insisted that their only goal should be to maximum the returns on their money—justice be damned.

So it didn't surprise me to hear UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp and Jonathan King, who manages the UNC Investment Fund LLC, answer today's divestment advocates with the same old points about maximizing returns. But I wasn't prepared for the rest of their argument, which was that they couldn't divest if they wanted to.

Why? Because they've turned over control of their investments to hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds, which have their own rules and aren't going to pass up a good fossil-fuel play just because one investor objects—even if that investor is from Blue Heaven.

Wait, some students asked, didn't you divest in 2008 from corporations doing business in Sudan? Well, yes and no, Thorp and King said. The UNC-CH trustees did pass such a resolution. But what no one knew at the time was that the resolution was mostly loophole and didn't apply to investments made by outside hedge funds, et cetera—that is, investments not under the direct control of the university.

Thus, no Sudan-related holdings were sold, they said.

At which point, you could almost see them washing their hands of the problem.

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