An oil-funded university is not sustainable

Patrick Lee

The UT System captured headlines in 2018 for securing the second-largest endowment in the nation at $31 billion, falling only to Harvard, whose endowment is over $39 billion. To compete with university titans and come out near the top is an impressive feat, one that begs the question: Where does all this money come from? 

In 1876, Texas established the Permanent University Fund, a money reserve intended to support the development of the UT and A&M university systems. The fund set aside over 2 million acres in West Texas that the University could lease out to generate mineral royalties. Oil royalties continue to account for the vast majority of the fund’s fiscal revenue as hydraulic fracking technology positions the University as a national powerhouse in oil production.

Predictably, politicians and UT board members praise the Permanent University Fund as a lifeline of the institution and the nucleus of UT’s financial security. Unfortunately, UT’s institutionalized codependency with fossil fuels is incompatible with genuine sustainability. 

At UT, students experienced coordinated University efforts to increase green initiatives. Since 2016, UT has introduced the sustainability studies major, revamped its Campus Environmental Center, added novel services such as the green campus tour and launched the Green Offices program.

As a member of the sustainability studies email list, I’ve been carpet bombed with opportunities to apply for leadership positions through the environmental center, volunteer for West Campus cleanups and join ongoing green projects such as microfarming. The environmental center completely overhauled their website last year, staffing it with flashy links to ongoing opportunities in which you, the student, can recalibrate your behavior and make the world more sustainable.

This idea that the burden of responsible environmental stewardship should fall on the student body, though seemingly well-intentioned, may have the sinister effect of masking from public scrutiny UT’s dependence on fossil fuels. After all, the University could point to its efforts to encourage student environmentalism to shield itself from mainstream criticism as oil extraction churns along quietly in the background. One shouldn’t be surprised when UT boldly states that they’ve “formalized sustainability as a part of (their) mission, campus identity and public image” in the year their endowment reaches unparalleled heights. Nor should one be astonished when UT’s 92-page sustainability master plan doesn’t mention oil once.

Of course, one can argue that something outweighs nothing. 

“UT is trying to be more sustainable through using less energy, redesigning its grounds to use less water … (and) upgrading buildings,” sociology professor Scott Swearingen said. 

While this may be true, the looming reality is our university generates a substantial chunk of its operational revenue by pillaging the earth for fossil fuels while subsidizing economically and politically convenient green solutions. This is not leadership; it is narrow-minded, opportunistic gamesmanship.

UT commemorating students’ ecological efforts while simultaneously neglecting its own deep-seeded participation in accelerating climate change is the textbook definition of greenwashing, the act of deceptively laundering an organization’s reputation as ecologically friendly. Students should not reward those in power who are more interested in self-exculpatory branding exercises than in doing the difficult work of restructuring a destructive carbon factory.

Jim Walker, UT’s director of sustainability, believes sustainability shouldn’t be an exclusive club, that perfection shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. 

“Things (climate change) are happening now that we didn’t anticipate. So now we start to change our behavior and transition from an old system to a new system,” Walker said. Walker believes UT is already doing some of that difficult work through renewables research and developing climate resiliency.

Nonetheless, UT’s entrenched reliance on oil and gas continues a capitalist pattern of destruction, yet UT calls itself a first-class institution. To meet this standard, it must obtain financial security through zero-emission methods. 

Swearingen suggests UT could “sell off its (oil and gas) leases, then take that money and invest it in green energy companies … while making profit as a stockholder.” After divesting and reinvesting, UT could start its own green power company or even build its own system of solar arrays and windmills. This prudent policy would lower the price of green energy relative to oil, increase investments in green energy and signal commitment. It would also take UT off oil.

Lee is a sociology senior from Houston.