Uni defers decision on fossil fuel divestment

The University of Otago declined to make a decision on fossil fuel divestment following a tense debate at its council meeting yesterday.

Two letters from a group of prominent academics urging the university to publicly divest from fossil fuels were included in the agenda of yesterday's meeting.

Zoology Prof Liz Slooten said the university should include an anti-fossil fuel investment statement in its investment policy, believing ''[it would] send a very important message''.

Victoria University of Wellington is the only New Zealand university that has divested.

At yesterday's meeting, vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne was sceptical about the push for divestment, given the strict rules university investments have to follow.

Under those rules, the university would not be able to directly invest in the fossil fuel industry even if it wanted to, she said.

''Divesting requires investing in the first place ... I'd be very concerned about the fact that we would be making an announcement that has no teeth.''

Announcing divestment would be ''more of a puppet show'' than a true indication of the university's position on climate change, she said.

But Prof Slooten argued the university should take a stand on divestment nonetheless.

And even under the strict rules the university had to follow, it could still invest in a fossil fuel-related venture if that venture was driven by intellectual property developed by the university, she said.

''[Changing the investment policy] would avoid future problems,'' she said.

''It's a very simple request.''

After about 20 minutes of discussion, Prof Hayne said it was clear most council members agreed with the sentiment behind the push for fossil fuel divestment.

But divestment did not seem the best way to express that sentiment, she said.

''Let's look at actual real ways we can put the university's intellectual might behind [climate change and other] issues, rather than what we're being asked to do here today.''

At the conclusion of the debate, Prof Slooten prepared to put the issue to a vote, then changed her mind.

She instead suggested revisiting the issue at a future council meeting so divestment advocates could ''come up with a more appropriate proposal''.

Student group Otago Uni Divests, which compiled a 1300-signature petition for divestment that was presented at yesterday's meeting, said the meeting was ''really frustrating''.

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