The University of Pennsylvania's board of trustees will not divest the school's more than $10.7 billion endowment funds from fossil fuels, the school said Thursday.
Really, it came down to a matter of "moral evil" - and a committee of faculty, staff, students and alumni concluded the fossil fuel industry does not meet that definition.
"In its unanimous decision, the … committee concurred in what the Trustees consider to be the linchpin of any divestment decision at Penn: the interpretation of moral evil as an activity on par with apartheid or genocide," wrote David L. Cohen, chair of the board of trustees, in a letter to the student group, Fossil Free Penn, which had sought divestment.
"While the Trustees recognize that the "bar" of moral evil presents a rigorously high barrier of consideration, we are resolute in our belief that such a high barrier must be maintained so that investment decisions and the endowment are not used for the purpose of making public policy statements."
The board of trustees used the same argument when it was asked to divest from tobacco stocks in 2014. Cohen cited the lack of "moral evil" and did not bring the matter up for a vote.
Penn did not immediately provide an answer on what percentage of the university's endowment funds are invested in fossil fuels.
Students on other college campuses also have urged divestment.
Swarthmore College drew national attention in spring 2015 when students staged a 32-day sit-in to try to persuade the board to divest fossil fuels from its then $1.9 billion endowment portfolio.
The board voted against the move, citing investment guidelines that call for "the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives."
Simon Richter, a professor of Germanic languages and literature at Penn, was disappointed in the board's decision.
"Penn sort of missed an opportunity to practice the kind of moral leadership …that we would like to see," said Richter, who initiated a letter to the trustees earlier this year supporting divestment and signed by more than 100 faculty.
The devastating effects of climate change constitute moral evil, he said.
"We're talking about millions and millions of people being drastically affected by the actions of companies" that release carbon into the air, he said.
He called on Penn to hold an open debate on the question.
In his letter, Cohen wrote that trustee guidelines also specify that divestment must be from a specific company or companies rather than an industry and have broad support from the Penn community over time.
Fossil Free Penn had asked the university last November not to make new investments in the fossil fuel industry, remove its holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies globally within five years and reinvest a portion of the funds that become available from the divestment into "clean energy assets."
Cohen noted that the university is committed to other efforts to improving the environment, including campus sustainability and research regarding climate change and energy.