Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing
The Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing was established as a permanent addition to the University in March 2000. The Committee's purpose is to advise the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University's endowment. It is made up of 12 voting members drawn from students, faculty, and alumni of the University, and two non-voting university officials.
Its decisions affect the Columbia Investment Management Company (IMC), which manages Columbia's endowment, valued at almost $11 billion in 2020. The investments divided between "hedge funds, global equities, real assets, absolute return strategy funds, fixed income, and cash." Divestment policies generally only affect the direct holdings and not "indirect" investments -- Columbia may tell hedge funds about their values, but the hedge funds could still be invested in companies that the ACSRI policy divested from. Between 2009 and 2019, the share of investments in hedge funds increased from 30% to 35%.
ACSRI reviews proposals (proxies) for corporations that the University has direct holdings in, and "recommend[s] to the University Trustees how to vote on shareholder proposals on several broad social issue categories, including animal welfare; banking; charitable donations; environment, energy and sustainability; equal employment; health and safety; human rights; military and security; and political contributions." The meeting minutes posted on their website generally record whether the committee supports or rejects proxies. ACSRI also considers proposals for divestment from members of the Columbia community (as well as "options for shareholder engagement", e.g. becoming an Investor Signatory to the CDP Climate Change program).
Currently, the University has determined to divest from private prison operators, thermal coal, tobacco, and certain oil and gas companies. From 2006 to 2021, Columbia had divested from Sudan (the Khartoum government) due to extensive human rights violations, including genocide. The divestment was lifted in recognition that Sudan seems to be on a path of transition to a more stable, democratic rule, and economic activity could help that progress.
For many years, ACSRI rejected proposals for a broader divestment from fossil fuels from Columbia Divest for Climate Justice as well as a 2018 proposal to divest from the University's indirect holdings in thermal coal, with the rationale that it would be hypocritical to divest while still using fossil fuels on campus, "the substitution of natural gas for coal is one immediate way of reducing the carbon footprint of energy production", and active engagement with companies they invest in would have a larger behavior change.
However, the committee said it would look favorably upon a proposal to divest from "publicly traded firms that engage in climate change denialism whether by “word” or by “deed”" (for example, investing in "high carbon-content resource exploration and development") as a pro-democratic, "stand up for science" approach. It also acknowledged that the university economics advisors could independently find that fossil fuel investments are too risky and decide to "avoid companies that refuse to acknowledge the social and financial costs of climate change and that fail to take economically sensible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." In 2016, the committee created its own proposal for targeted divesting from tar sands based on its "stand up for science" methodology; it seems this did not move forward because the committee decided that creating divestment proposals was out of its scope--rather, it should only consider external proposals.
In January of 2021, Columbia University announced that they no longer hold any direct investments in publicly-traded oil and gas companies, planning to continue this “non-investment for the foreseeable future.” Simultaneously, Columbia IMC pledged to not make new investments in private funds whose primary investments are in oil and gas companies. However, the University outlines their freedom to make exceptions to this non-investment if a certain oil or gas company has a “credible plan” to “transform their businesses to net zero emissions by 2050,” in order to meet the IMC’s goals for risk and returns. Otherwise, little information has been given to outline specific guidelines or measures taken by Columbia IMC in their non-investment. These measures are to be re-evaluated periodically with the potential for expansion to other sectors that are contributory to climate change. This announcement was in response to Columbia Extinction Rebellion's proposal, after a year of striking by Extinction Rebellion and the Columbia Sunrise Movement Hub and the announcement of the Climate School.