New life is pulsing through streets across the globe as hundreds of thousands of young people march in solidarity against climate change inaction. Earlier this month, the climate craze enveloped Austin as well. UT students, myself included, and concerned citizens from across the state congregated at the Tower before trekking to the Texas State Capitol Building. But, perhaps we did not need to trek at all to mount a protest against environmental malefactors. Perhaps, we should have directed our passion toward campus.
Last year, the UT System made national headlines for surpassing Yale with the second-highest endowment in the country, valued at $31 billion. This growth paved the way for UT Austin to unveil its acclaimed recent financial aid plan that makes undergraduate tuition free for all students from families that make less than $65,000 per year. Unfortunately, this achievement is stained by crude oil. A significant fraction of the university’s fortune comes from UT property that is leased to oil and gas companies for development in the Permian Basin oilfield, a massive region marked by extremely unhealthy amounts of methane leakage, hydraulic fracking, and a multitude of other environmentally detrimental activities. In fact, land owned by the UT system alone was accountable for emitting the warming equivalent of 11.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over a six-year period in the form of methane leakage. Ironically, a portion of the endowment goes to research initiatives that focus on cutting-edge sustainability practices, a cause that the university is proud of. If the UT System wants to be as environmentally friendly as it markets itself, however, it must sever its ties with the fossil fuel industry soon and look for cleaner sources of income.
The Forty Acres stands to benefit from emulating the more eco-friendly investment model used by Harvard, the only university that boasts an endowment larger than UT’s. Rather than investing in low-hanging fruit like fossil fuel land leases, UT could diversify its portfolio by seeking investment opportunities abroad and turning to sources such as private equity like Harvard does. Sinking money into private equity options, such as venture capital and real estate, and investing in various foreign markets would minimize the UT System’s unhealthy dependence on volatile domestic oil and gas markets, therefore ensuring the endowment.
It must be acknowledged, however, that this shift in paradigm could affect people in more ways than we can think of. As a rural West Texas native, I worry that the parents of my hometown friends would be at risk of unemployment since many of them work on the same oil rigs that finance the University. As a low-income student, I worry that my financial aid would be jeopardized if adjusting funding sources proved less lucrative than the current approach. Despite this, the reputation and dignity of UT Austin and the wellbeing of the planet necessitate that the University changes its activities. While the oil money may be going towards a respectable institution and purpose, the ends in no way justify the means.
The Forty Acres has a moral responsibility to find virtuous sources of income because, as a top-tier, nationally-leading public university, more than just “The Eyes of Texas” are upon us. I pride myself on being a student of a university willing to acknowledge the challenges our environment faces and their origins, but UT’s toxic addiction to cheap oil and gas profits detracts from its environmental consciousness. The UT system must take a leading stand on firmly denying the grounds for the future growth of oil and other unsustainable practices — only through such definitive action can it send a faithful message to its population and the surrounding community about its commitment to the environment.