DENVER — The fossil-fuel divestment movement, fresh off its biggest victory to date at Syracuse University, took a step backward Thursday as the University of Colorado Board of Regents rejected calls to sell off its holdings in oil, natural gas and coal.
The board voted 7-2 against divesting its $2.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels, citing state law and university policy requiring prudent investment of public funds, then defeated a second proposal to launch a sustainable investment advisory committee.
Regent John Carson cited the board’s policy of “institutional neutrality on social and political matters,” saying, “Clearly that’s directed at not allowing our investment decisions to be influenced by politics and the movements of the day.”
“We want our investment decisions, our treasurer, to be basing those decisions on the best interests of the university and the return to the university,” said Mr. Carson, a Republican. “The University of Colorado’s investment decisions must first and foremost advance the institution’s financial interests and support its academic mission.”
Regent Sue Sharkey said she was frustrated by the divestment movement’s “demonization of energy companies. They’re not our enemy.”
“It is a ridiculous case I think to make that this university divesting from fossil fuels is going to make a difference toward climate change or global warming or whatever the term is — I can’t keep up,” said Ms. Sharkey, a Republican. “Whatever it is, divesting is not the answer.”
Turnout at the meeting was low: Only about two dozen activists turned up for the vote at the Auraria Campus in Denver, which they attributed to the difficult road conditions brought on by a spring snowstorm.
Among those speaking in favor of the divestment were students from CU Fossil Free and investment consultants from Green Alpha Advisors in Boulder, who argued that investing in renewable energy is a better long-term financial strategy than keeping funds in fossil fuel stocks.
“The Board made clear today whose side they have chosen, and is not the side of students,” said Fossil Free CU afterward in a Facebook post. “In light of today’s meeting, we are committed to continue escalating this campaign, because Fossil Free CU organizers know that our university cannot falter on climate justice.”
The University of Colorado vote came as a setback for the divestment movement three weeks after marking an enormous win with Syracuse, which announced it would prohibit direct investment of its $1.2 billion endowment in publicly traded companies whose primary business is fossil fuel extraction.
The vote puts Syracuse on the opposite side of about 47 U.S. universities, including Harvard, Yale and the University of California, that have rejected divestment proposals from the fossil-free campus campaign, led by the climate change group 350.org.
Their combined endowment is estimated at $101 billion, or about 36 times the $2.8 billion combined endowment of the 23 U.S. universities and colleges that have embraced divestment, including Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Stanford University agreed last year not to make direct investments in coal-mining companies but kept oil and natural gas holdings in its $18 billion endowment.
Groups like Fossil Free Yale haven’t given up. Nineteen students were fined for trespassing April 9 after holding a sit-in outside the office of Yale President Peter Salovey, while divestment protesters blocked the entrance to Massachusetts Hall at Harvard earlier this week.
Students at the University of Colorado Boulder held a three-day “occupation” of the Norlin Quad, which organizers called off Thursday after the board’s vote.
Republicans control the University of Colorado board by a 5-4 margin, but two of the four Democrats also voted against the divestment measure.
Regent Michael Carrigan, a Democrat, added an amendment to the anti-divestment resolution directing the board’s investment advisory committee and treasurer to report back in November on “what options are available” in terms of promoting sustainability.
“I do not envision a scenario in which we will support total divestment, but I don’t see this as a black and white issue,” said Mr. Carrigan shortly before the vote. “I do think that there are ways that this university can express its commitment, not only through campus policies but through investment strategy.”