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Students, faculty debate ethics of oil company investment

With the University’s recent disassociation with Adidas for its unethical practices, the debate over which companies the University should invest in has turned to oil corporations.

Members of the nationally ranked Rutgers University Debate Union joined with professors Wednesday night at the Cook Campus Center to debate whether the University should discontinue its investments in fossil fuel to address the issue of climate change.

Arbi Llaveshi, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, opened the debate in opposition to investment. He said the future benefits of divesting far surpass that of any financial reasons the University has to continue its investments now.

“Even if … we have some financial incentive to invest in our students, I would say that the impact we make by changing the world … not only economically but through a fundamental [way], that would outweigh that,” Llaveshi said.

He said the University should set a standard and take more action toward becoming environmentally friendly to send a strong message of support in combating climate change.

“Where we stand as a green institution — not just a partially green institution that places solar panels as shade under our parking lots, but a fully green institution which is actually consistent — then we can maintain a firm stand,” Llaveshi said.

Though this does not force change on the entire world, he said it opens the door for discussion and gives the University the opportunity to begin a movement.

Raman Maingi, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, countered Llaveshi, and said if the University ceases financing companies who produce and burn fossil fuels on moral grounds, it would have to cease any investments it has with any companies.

“All companies are icky. Walmart and Nike invest in sweatshops … Cracker Barrel actively lobbies against gay rights and refuses to hire anyone [with] dwarfism,” Maingi said. “This clearly demonstrates that no matter what company you pick … there is always something wrong with [their] agenda and there is always a skeleton in the closet.”

He said instead of removing the company’s funding, the University should put its efforts toward holding the company accountable by forcing them to pay for the damages they have incurred.

“What they are advocating is hitting companies over the head with a hammer instead of using a targeted scaffold to go in and cut out the part of the companies that are bad and make them actually internalize the cost that they have to society,” he said.

Removing the funding for oil companies will not initiate any changes, Maingi said.  

“[Oil companies] have a disapproval rate around 60 to 70 percent and are always ranked the last of all the major industries in our country,” he said. “But they don’t change their practices or don’t actually go off that differently.”

David Hughes, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, said the issue is not whether the companies heed public opinion, but holding politicians accountable for the scale of the companies’ autonomy.

“This is about sending a message to our Congress and saying that our congress should find this sector icky … too icky to take its campaign contributions … too icky to take it to its private chambers, too icky to trade favors with. That is about putting pressure on a government,” Hughes said.

He said the University should still engage in actions against the companies regardless of how much popularity is gained initially, because movements take time to grow and be effective.

“This is a turning point for the United States and for the world,” Hughes said. “I think [it is] shameful for an institution of higher learning —for a scientific institution to be on the wrong side of history here.”

Sean Leonard, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said divesting in companies like Exxon Mobil that invest in solar power infrastructure, would be illogical as these are efforts the University aims to support.

“These companies are actually doing good things for the environment. … They are actually going to be hurting one of the companies that … is giving solar power the ability to exist on college campuses in a way that is beneficial,” Leonard said.

He said divesting would negatively affect University students who gain from the financial incentives provided by these companies.

“When you take away these profitable things … what you are doing is taking away from the total amount of money that Rutgers has. You are taking away the money that goes toward financial aid … that goes towards having better buildings, better teachers,” he said.

Bruce Mizrach, a professor in the Department of Economics, said the focus should be on taxing the companies’ individual unethical practices rather than removing funding completely.

“[Taxes] are exactly the scaffolds the opposition has been talking about that target not the entire the activities of a particular company, they do not target one particular type of economic activity over another, but in fact strike directly the things that are harmful to the environment,” he said.

Bhargavi Sriram, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said though divestment might injure the companies’ investments in solar power, the long-term benefit outweighs the negatives.

“It’s not harming somebody else, it is our own lives that are going to be harmed and we think that’s a very small price to pay … so our future is not breathing in asphalt,” Sriram said.

She said it is a contradiction for the University to have solar paneling and at the same time invest in companies burning fossil fuel.

“Rutgers has the largest solar panel field of any university in the nation, in the whole entire nation. I think we are taking a strong stance here that de-carbonization is good,” she said. “We think that we should be a leader in putting this pressure on the government.”

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