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Weighing ANU's coal play

  • 30 October 2014

When the Australian National University sold its shares in a number of coal companies it received a mixed response. It won considerable support for the University from the public and a stern dressing down from Government and business. Such strong and disparate reactions to a relatively minor commercial transaction show that it scraped tender political and ethical nerves. 

The divestment was criticised on the general grounds that such decisions, particularly by public bodies, must be guided only by financial considerations, and on the specific grounds that the ANU divestment and naming of the companies involved were unjustifiable. 

The principle that investment and divestment should be guided only by financial considerations is an arbitrary dogma. Investing, like other financial decisions, is done by human beings, who should be guided by their effects of their investment on other human beings, not simply by the profit it brings them. This is true whether the investment made is by individuals or corporate bodies like universities and churches. 

Some critics of the ANU decision argued that in financial decisions universities should be guided by the policies of their major funding source, the Government. This is a dangerous dogma. Since universities inherit a collegial rather than corporate tradition, it is appropriate for them to attend to the views of their students and teachers, to seek advice from its scholars on the effect of coal on the environment, and to act on the advice they receive. 

Critics also argued that by naming the companies from which it withdrew investment the ANU unjustly caused damage to their reputation. Although the University examined each case, I remain uneasy about the naming of companies. The ethical point at stake has to do with the effects of fossil fuels as such, not with the guilt of companies involved in its mining. Scapegoating blurs this point.

The most substantial argument made against divestment is that coal mining provides revenue which benefits all Australians, and in particular provides employment for workers and for those who provide services. Coal mining also provides benefits to the poor in importing nations by enabling the industrial development necessary to feed and employ their people. It is reckless for an Australian university to prejudice these benefits. 

Universities, however, have larger responsibilities. Their work it is to build on the wisdom they receive and to pass it on to the next generation. So they ought consider the effects of current