Pushing for New Donors, Columbia Is Building a Climate School 

The university made sweeping commitments to sustainability, including a carbon neutral pledge for 2050 and the appointment of a chief climate officer. 

Seeking fresh donors, Columbia University is mulling a proposal over the next several months to build a school dedicated to climate change. 

Columbia already runs the Earth Institute, the research firm it founded in 1995 that also investigates issues regarding environmentalism. But the research firm “has encountered structural challenges that limit its success and growth,” stated a December report from an advisory task force to the university president. 

Last month, the university decided to go forward with the climate change school plan, as part of a wide-ranging list of commitments to sustainability, according to a letter from Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. 

“The Climate School has enormous fundraising potential,” the report read. “It will allow the university to make the greatest impact possible across all parts of Columbia, more so than if we were to simply enhance existing structures or fund large projects.” 

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Unlike the research firm, the Climate School can appoint faculty and subsidize its research with a tuition base, the task force wrote. A school can also develop a pipeline of alumni for future funding. 

The plan to build a separate school follows a dismal year for Columbia’s nearly $11 billion endowment, which returned just 3.8% in 2019. The poor showing not only trailed every other Ivy League endowment, it also lagged behind the national total institution average, which gained 5.3% in the same time period. It’s also just half the performance of the S&P 500, which increased roughly 7.6%.

Socially Responsible Investing 

Following similar pledges from other schools, including its sister school Barnard, Columbia also pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 and is seeking divestment options for its portfolio. The school will also appoint a chief climate officer for the first time, the president said.  

Columbia is not the first school to consider incorporating socially responsible investing principles into its portfolio. Last week, Georgetown said it will divest from fossil fuels over the next decade. And at Harvard, the question of fossil fuel divestment is a point of contention among students, faculty, and shareholders. 

The university has seen a series of exits from its endowment recently. Last month, Columbia Investment Management Company CEO Peter Holland said he would retire later this year. Meanwhile, former chief investment officer Tim Donahue left the endowment nearly six months ago to head Hawaii’s Kamehameha Schools’ $8.2 billion endowment.

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