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Ball State investment policy bends to fossil fuel concerns

July 5, 2015

A Ball State University professor who's been critical of the school's investments in fossil fuels that contribute to global warming is praising the university's recent shift in its investment policies as a significant "moral stance."

The Ball State University Foundation's board of directors voted last month to create an alternative investment portfolio that offers endowment donors an option to invest in a portfolio managed under socially responsible principles.

That change isn't as sweeping as a student group called "Go Fossil Free Ball State" had wanted in calling for the foundation to freeze any new investment in companies that burn coal and other fossil fuels that release pollution that contributes to global warming.

The student group had also wanted foundation leaders to divest their assets in those companies within five years.

But John Vann, a Ball State associate professor of marketing who's also pushed for fossil fuel divestment, said the investment policy shift "is a moral stance and very symbolic."

"This sends a message that they recognize the significance of fossil fuel consumption to climate change and will give donors who share these concerns the option of following their conscience with their contributions," he told The Star Press.

Ball State University Foundation CEO Cherí O'Neill said the investment policy changes are being implemented even though an analysis found that less than 1 percent of the foundation's holdings involve any of the 200 companies that have the highest exposure to fossil fuel production.

She said the foundation will also encourage adoption of socially responsible investment strategies among its advisors and managers in addition to making other changes.

The shift comes more than a year after the school shut down four coal-fired boilers dating to the 1940s. That eliminated the school's annual burning of up to 36,000 tons of coal that released sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants.

The school continues using another fossil fuel, natural gas, in three boilers to produce steam for heating and hot water for the Muncie campus.

But Ball State is investing about $80 million to drill about 3,600 boreholes for a geothermal system that uses buried pipes to tap the Earth's natural heat storage capacity to both heat and cool. Now nearly fully operational, the geothermal system will cut the university's carbon footprint in half, said Jim Lowe, director of engineering, construction and operations at Ball State.

"For Ball State to be touting its geothermal system as a way of getting off carbon while investing in fossil fuels is a little paradoxical," Vann said. "But this is a good step, really good."

Ball State President Paul W. Ferguson said the foundation's recent investment policy change "effectively balances the foundation's fiduciary responsibility with a commitment to environmental, social and governance guidelines."

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