University partners with students to further educate community on sustainability

May 27, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – To continue Penn State’s commitment toward a sustainable future, University leaders are working with the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) and various student organizations to educate the Penn State community and update student leaders on Penn State’s overarching actions toward sustainability and its energy-related investment strategies.

Penn State’s senior leaders – including Joe Cullen, chief investment officer, and Sara Thorndike, senior vice president for Finance and Business – recently met with student leaders to talk about current sustainable actions and the complexities of UPUA’s resolution asking for Penn State to freeze all future investments in fossil fuels and sell all holdings in firms that extract, produce, refine, sell, store, or transport oil, gas and coal by Dec. 31, 2026. 

Cullen shared that since June 2019, Penn State has not made any direct investments in exploration and production energy companies. Cullen also said that the Penn State Investment Council recently approved a $25 million commitment to a sustainability fund, which should help renewable efforts.

“I am pleased I was able to hear this information directly from University leadership,” said Erin Boas, UPUA president who will be a senior this fall majoring in international politics and economics. “Larger scale, this awareness is helpful for all students to better understand what Penn State’s stance is and the actions the University has been taking.”

Future energy use is a global question to which Penn State has committed much research, education, engagement and vital resources toward the search for feasible solutions, explained Thorndike. 

Decisive actions taken by the University to reduce its carbon footprint include reducing campus greenhouse gas emissions by 32% since 2005 and partnering with Lightsource bp for a 70-megawatt solar energy project to provide 25% of the University’s statewide electrical needs over the course of the 25-year agreement.

Notably, Penn State has a wide array of programs in the energy arena, from nuclear to solar, wind, petroleum, shale, nanomaterials, hydroelectric and biomass, and the University is advancing technologies and providing science-based solutions. Penn State also partners with the Student Sustainability Advisory Council (SSAC), a student organization that provides consultation and advice on sustainability planning, programs, curricula and initiatives. SSAC recommendations adopted by the University include using locally sourced food in the dining halls to support regional agriculture; an increase in electric vehicle charging stations; and the creation of a survey to gauge the importance of sustainability issues in students’ lives, determine awareness of campus sustainability efforts and discover what students are doing to be sustainable.

In addition, Penn State’s Office of Investment Management recently hired two student summer interns who are assisting with researching environmental, social and governance (ESG) topics and evolving best practices in use by institutional investors to integrate these topics into an investment process.

Mona Hill, World Campus Student Government Association (WCSGA) president who will be a senior this fall majoring in energy and sustainability policy, expressed that she is encouraged by Penn State faculty’s heavy involvement in sustainability research and programming, including the work of the University’s Sustainability Institute. 

Founded in 2013 the Sustainability Institute, as part of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE), supports the integrated framework of the United Nation’s 2030 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for its engagement, curriculum development, student-community projects and more. The SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” by 2030. 

Thorndike said that the IEE’s interdisciplinary work aims to solve some of the world’s most difficult energy and environmental challenges via its seven institutes, three consortia and 10 centers. 

Additionally, Penn State recently ranked fourth in the U.S. and 32nd in the world out of 1,115 international institutions that participated in the Times Higher Education (THE) University Impact Rankings, placing the University in the top 3% of universities worldwide for various individual SDGs. 

 “Our conversation with student leaders was fruitful as students were able to share their concerns with us and we were able to update them on the University’s ongoing sustainability efforts, as well as the financial strategies and obligations to donors and others that guide our investments," Thorndike said. "It is clear that students and University leaders have a shared emphasis on sustainability and that, as a University and as individuals, we have a serious commitment to seeking solutions that will garner positive outcomes in both the short-term and the long-term.” 

While Penn State’s investment objectives prioritize investments that achieve the maximum return for continued support of student scholarships, world-class faculty, groundbreaking research and high-quality instruction, University leaders are actively integrating sustainability into the investment process as they assess both risks and opportunities. Cullen said that the University’s current fossil fuel holdings are a small part of its portfolio, around 5%, and organizations focused on exploration and production of fossil fuels has decreased in recent years. Penn State will continue its focus on investment in a diversified portfolio, including renewables.  

“Students don’t know that the University hasn’t invested in fossil fuels for two years,” said Schönn Franklin, Graduate and Professional Student Association president and a graduate student in international security policy and Spanish. “Personally, I am fine with Penn State being at the table (with fossil-fuel companies). I care more so about the benefit we receive from being at the table and working with them to generate change. Given constraints, whether it be the University’s governing bodies or Pennsylvania Legislature, I think Penn State is doing well.”

Last Updated May 27, 2021