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University of Auckland Academics Urge Fossil Fuel Divestment

Two hundred and forty staff at the University of Auckland have signed an open letter to the University Foundations urging them to divest from coal, oil and gas companies. The letter cites the “overriding moral impetus to withdraw the social license” of fossil fuel companies in “the transition to a zero-carbon economy”.

A divestment decision by the Foundations “would indicate that the University is willing to place its institutional weight unequivocally behind efforts aimed at limiting future global warming to well below two degrees, as called for in the 2015 Paris agreement”, the letter says.

The letter features signatures from staff across all of the university’s eight faculties, and will be tabled at the upcoming University of Auckland Foundation meeting on Friday 23 June. Prominent signatories include historian Dame Anne Salmond, Associate Dean of Sustainability Dr Niki Harre, Deputy Head of Population Health Professor Peter Adams, and Law Professor Jane Kelsey.

Spokesperson for the group of staff advocating divestment, Dr Rhys Jones, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, emphasized the need for universities to be public leaders: “as the critic and conscience of society, institutions such as our university play a critical role in shaping public opinion on issues of global relevance and urgency such as climate change.”

“Divesting from fossil fuels is a practical and effective step which demonstrates that the University will not condone the continued extraction of fossil fuels when research has shown that 80% of existing reserves must stay in the ground for us to remain below 2º of global warming,” said Dr Jones.

Also being considered at Friday’s meeting of the Foundation is a statement endorsing divestment, backed by the Auckland University Students’ Association and 22 other student organisations on campus. At the meeting, the Foundation will determine whether to progress discussions on divestment by inviting staff and student representatives to speak to their subsequent September meeting.

The move comes after 14 students occupied the Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon’s wing of the University’s iconic clocktower building on 29 May for 12 hours, demanding he support the call for the Foundations to divest. Two days later hundreds of students, staff and supporters marched towards the Clock Tower, repeating the call for fossil fuel divestment.

Alex Johnston, spokesperson for student group Fossil Free UoA said, “After over two years of campaigning, the Foundation’s willingness to table the open letter and engage with staff and students for the first time in is encouraging.”

The Fossil Free UoA campaign is part of a global movement that has led to institutions representing over $5 trillion in assets divesting from fossil fuels. Divested institutions include the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington, and Auckland Council.

Currently, the University of Auckland Foundation and the School of Medicine Foundation hold pooled funds of approximately $120 million, with around 1.5% of that invested in companies with fossil fuel interests, according to statements from the Vice Chancellor.

Said Johnston: “This staff open letter is a powerful mandate from those who directly benefit from the Foundation’s investments, and the extent to which Vice Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon is out of touch by refusing to back the call for the Foundations to divest for all our futures.”


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