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American University Eliminates All Public Fossil Fuel Investments from Its Endowment

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As part of its comprehensive commitment to sustainability, American University has divested all of its public fossil fuel investments from its endowment. While AU has had no direct investments in fossil fuel funds for several years, in a series of transactions over the last few months, the Board of Trustees eliminated the remaining $12.9 million of fossil fuel exposure within the public endowment portfolio. This action was executed through the sale of $350 million in commingled and index funds, with the proceeds reinvested in investments that do not include any fossil fuel holdings.

Today is also the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, an idea that was first shared by then-senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) at Airlie Center, which the Airlie Board of Directors donated to AU in 2016. This week also brings the second anniversary of AU becoming the first carbon neutral university in the United States, a status achieved two years ahead of schedule.

“For more than a decade, AU has been on a campus-wide sustainability journey—something that’s not just part of our mission, but our DNA as changemakers,” said President Sylvia M. Burwell. “Our actions, from reaching carbon neutrality to the board’s commitment to evolving our investments, will continue to serve as a model for sustainability, further demonstrating our leadership on the issue and how our community can make an impact in the global fight against climate change.”

The board and university leadership have actively considered issues related to fossil fuel investments since 2014, when they established a Fossil Free Investment Fund within the university’s endowment. And over the last couple of years, AU has been carefully divesting its public endowment portfolio. Removing investments in fossil fuels required that the university ensure that any new investment vehicles had comparable performance and fees (if not lower fees) to those of the prior fossil fuel investments. AU currently has no Carbon 200 companies in its private investment portfolio but may at some point have small and short-lived positions.

"This action underscores our leadership on sustainability while exercising our fiduciary responsibility for ensuring the financial health of a great university that has served our nation for more than a century," said Jeff Sine, chair of AU’s Finance and Investment Committee and Partner, The Raine Group LLC. “Our board wants to acknowledge the important work happening throughout the campus to protect the environment and those in our AU community who are taking action on climate change.”

Input from AU students, faculty, and staff throughout this time has been thoughtful and helpful. American University students are passionate and effective advocates, and their dedication to sustainability and addressing climate change, as witnessed in a recent student-held referendum, is to be commended. Making these changes allows the university to fulfill its commitment to students and the entire AU community. Learn more about AU’s sustainability efforts here.

Editor's Note, March 19, 2021: This story has been updated to correct when AU acquired Airlie. AU received Airlie as a gift in 2016.