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SUNY Faculty Urge Pension to Divest from Fossil Fuels

The TIAA Divest campaign builds momentum for pulling funding from polluters and reinvesting in renewable energy companies.

A protest rally organized by TIAA Divest outside of the TIAA headquarters in New York City in 2018.
TIAA Divest
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In late February, the State University of New York Cortland Faculty Senate, which represents instructors at the Southern Tier school, unanimously passed a resolution urging its pension fund manager, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, to divest from fossil fuel companies. “Whereas, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA) has $8 billion invested in industries promoting fossil fuel production, distribution and consumption,” reads the resolution, “…Therefore be it resolved, that the SUNY Cortland faculty urges the SUNY Board of Trustees to support and advocate for the divestment of TIAA funds from all fossil fuel holdings….”

In doing so, the SUNY Cortland Faculty Senate became the latest institution to join TIAA Divest, a campaign demanding that TIAA cease investing in fossil fuel projects, businesses involved in deforestation, and other enterprises accelerating climate change. TIAA has thus far refused to take action, but environmentalists hope that the growing pressure from clients like SUNY faculty will force its hand.

Founded in 1918, TIAA is a provider of financial services to teachers, professors, and other professionals in the nonprofit sector. As a funds manager, TIAA controls $1.1 trillion in assets belonging to more than 5 million people at over 15,000 institutions, including SUNY schools, making it one of the largest companies in the United States, according to Fortune. TIAA is also one of the largest investors in fossil fuels in the world, to the tune of more than $8 billion in coal, oil, and fracked gas, according to Fossil Free Funds, an environmentalist watchdog. Critics have brought particular attention to TIAA as one of the world’s largest investors in coal and, closer to home, a leading investor in Cricket Valley Energy Center, a recently completed fracked-gas power plant in Dover, New York, which opponents had been fighting since 2011.

TIAA Divest began coalescing in December of 2019 around 75 existing groups of environmentalists, educators, medical professionals, concerned citizens, and others. Iris Marie Bloom, director of Protecting Our Waters, a Hudson Valley-based grassroots organization dedicated to the conservation of local waterways, was one of the cofounders and drew on her previous experience with the American Committee on Africa, which organized global divestment from South Africa during apartheid, in the 1980s.

Bloom says she was motivated to start the divestment campaign after learning that TIAA had funded one-third of the costs of building the Cricket Valley Energy Center. “I was shocked to learn that TIAA was so directly and heavily invested in this unnecessary and terrible power plant in Dutchess County, with impacts extending throughout the Harlem Valley and Hudson Valley regions,” she says.

Credit: Bechtel
The company that manages SUNY pensions was a major funder of Cricket Valley Energy Center, a new fracked-gas power plant.

In May, TIAA Divest issued a collective demand letter to TIAA, urging the company to divest from Cricket Valley in particular and all other fossil fuel enterprises in general, as well as cease any future investments in oil, coal, and fracked gas or businesses involved in deforestation and human rights abuses. TIAA’s response was ostensibly sympathetic, yet claimed the company’s hands were tied by its responsibility to its clients. According to a letter issued by Megan Fielding, TIAA’s senior director of “responsible investing,” to TIAA Divest in September: 

… TIAA explored selling our stake in [Cricket Valley] last year, but unfortunately, we did not receive offers that would allow us to exit this investment in a manner consistent with our fiduciary responsibility to our clients. We are continuing to evaluate options for our investment in [Cricket Valley], including a possible exit, but any action we take must be done with consideration for the long-term financial interests of our clients. As outlined in our Policy Statement on Responsible Investing, we do not believe that a blanket divestment of our stake in [Cricket Valley] would be an optimal strategy for producing long-term value for our participants.

(Contacted for this article by The River, John McCool, TIAA’s senior director of public relations and corporate communications, declined to comment further.)

Rather than accepting TIAA’s use of its clients as human shields, TIAA Divest appealed to those clients directly. In December, the SUNY New Paltz Faculty Senate passed the resolution that would later inspire their colleagues in Cortland, urging TIAA to divest from fossil fuels and referencing Fielding’s letter as admission of the company profiting from pollution. Brian Obach, a professor of sociology at SUNY New Paltz, helped draft the resolution.

“I was inspired to get involved when I learned that my retirement savings were being invested in fossil fuels,” says Obach. “Like most faculty in the SUNY system, TIAA manages my retirement funds. I was disgusted to learn that TIAA is using my money to support industries that foster climate change, in addition to investing in companies engaged in deforestation and human rights abuses.”

Following TIAA Divest’s success with the faculty senate, it was able to advance a similar resolution in January within United University Professions, the largest labor union for higher education in the United States, which represents faculty at SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Cortland, and elsewhere. The SUNY Cortland Faculty Senate followed suit in February, and TIAA Divest is now working with at least nine other schools to do the same, joining a large divestment movement.

“The TIAA Divest campaign is part of the broader effort to end investment in fossil fuels, which has been ongoing for a decade,” explains Obach. “Hundreds of colleges and universities, as well as other institutions, have divested their funds from fossil fuels. Divesting pension funds is the latest front in that ongoing struggle.”

Divestment as a tactic in pursuit of social justice was pioneered in the 1980s to fight apartheid in South Africa, but has been adopted more recently by environmentalists. In one especially high profile case, First Peoples Worldwide, a now-defunct nonprofit organization which funded development in indigenous communities, worked with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council beginning in August of 2016 to fight Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline. The divestment campaign focused on driving down the stock price of Energy Transfer, which has yet to recover, despite the completion of the pipeline four years ago. TIAA Divest hopes that its actions won’t just stop profiteering from pollution, but will avert cataclysmic climate change.

“Our ultimate goal is to prevent climate change that threatens human civilization and all life on Earth,” says Obach. “Right now, we need to get companies like TIAA to stop funding the industries that cause climate change and to reinvest in renewable energy companies that offer some hope of reversing the climate disaster.”