Five Ways to Research Your University’s Fossil Fuel (and Other) Investments

Photograph: Bascom Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison, April 4, 2014 (depthandtime, Flickr)

The past several years have seen a marked increase in organizing efforts among U.S. college students around climate and environmental justice issues. A key focus of these efforts has centered around university investments in oil, gas, and coal, and the demand that endowments divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in a just transition and community reinvestment

These efforts amount to more than just campus activism – they speak to a larger politics beyond the campus that recognize that big institutional investors like U.S. universities, which collectively oversee hundreds of billions in endowment money, help finance the fossil fuel industry and its polluting operations that are driving our climate emergency and environmental injustice.

For student organizers building fossil fuel divestment campaigns on their campuses, a first step is finding out what exactly your university is invested in. This information is sometimes hard to discover – indeed, many university investments are undisclosed and shrouded in mystery. 

But the good news is that you can usually dig up findings on university investments – including those made directly by universities and by private university-affiliated organizations that invest endowments – by using just a few research tactics.

Below we lay out five ways you can start researching your school’s investments – in fossil fuels, but also in anything else, from mass incarceration to surveillance tech. We also include short videos that help guide you through the different research techniques.

1. University stock & fund investment disclosures with the SEC

Colleges and universities with especially large endowments – such as Ivy League schools – that own stock in publicly-traded companies and in mutual, index, and exchange-traded funds disclose these investments with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), an independent federal body that monitors and regulates publicly-traded companies. 

The SEC maintains an online database called EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval) that contains filings made with the agency. You can see if your university discloses any investments with the SEC  by entering its name in the EDGAR database here. (Note: not all universities have investments to disclose with the SEC).

Let’s take an example. When you search “Yale University,” it takes you to a page that contains Yale’s SEC filings. Yale files quarterly reports on its holdings in something called a Form 13F (“Quarterly report filed by institutional managers, Holdings”). Form 13F is a filing that all investment managers managing $100 million or more in assets must file every quarter with the SEC that discloses their publicly-traded holdings.

If you click on the “documents” button on the most recent one (filed 2020-08-13), it takes you to a page that contains the different parts of that filing. If you click on “Document: y13f062020.html” (or, “INFORMATION TABLE” in HTML), it takes you to a table with Yale’s disclosed holdings:

We see here that Yale discloses tens of millions of dollars worth of stock in a few companies: Zoom, Slack, JBG Smith, PagerDuty and BD – tech, real estate, and medical device corporations.

Yale also discloses some ETFs that it’s invested in. ETFs are exchange traded funds – basically, funds that invest in many different companies that you can buy and sell like stocks. Many of these ETFs invest in questionable industries, and some are even dedicated to investment in fossil fuels. 

For example, take Yale’s investment in “ISHARES TR CORE S&P TTL STK” – which, if you search it, is “iShares Core S&P Total U.S. Stock Market ETF,” with the ticker symbol ITOT. iShares is a family of ETFs managed by BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager. If you go to ITOT’s profile page at iShares, you can click the “portfolio” tab and see what corporations Yale is invested in through its ITOT shares (for example, you see that ExxonMobil and Chevron are in the top 50 companies the fund invests in).

Here’s another helpful tip: there’s a site maintained by Fossil Free Funds that allows you to search the fossil fuel holdings of index and ETF funds. For example, If you enter ITOT there, you arrive at a page with all kinds of useful data, including a “fossil fuel grade” (ITOT gets a “C”) and information on the ETF’s fossil fuel holdings, such as the different fossil fuel companies it invests in, and what percentage of its assets are invested in oil, gas, and coal.

By researching university SEC filings and then analyzing their investments in ETFs and other funds, some campus groups and campaigns have been able to make better sense of their university’s investments in questionable industries. For example, groups like Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign have looked at Harvard’s investments tied to both the prison-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry through this research tactic.

Harvard is just one example. Through searching the SEC’s EDGAR database as described above, you can find information on some of the investments of schools like Brown and Notre Dame, and of university foundations like those of the University of Maryland and the University of Massachusetts.

2. University disclosures of investments contained in Form 990s

Non-profit organizations, including most universities, have to file something called a Form 990 every year with the IRS. These filings contain information on revenue, staff and board of directors, grant recipients, internal loans, conflicts of interest, top-paid contractors, sources of income, and more. 

Forms 990s are available to the public. Some online databases where you can search and retrieve them are ProPublica, Guidestar, and the IRS.

University Form 990 filings sometimes contain disclosures about investments, especially investments in private equity, which is a major Wall Street sector that constitutes a big chunk of most universities’ investment portfolios. These private equity investments are typically listed on the Form 990-T section of the Form 990, which discloses unrelated business income – including from “partnerships” with private equity.

College and university private equity investments can be found on the Form 990-T because of how private equity investments are structured. A private equity firm establishes each of the funds it manages as a limited partnership (LP), a distinct business where the private equity firm is the general partner in the fund and the investors are limited partners. Because colleges and universities are technically limited partners in the funds where they invest, when they are reporting the money they make from private equity profits they report it as “unrelated business income” from these limited partnerships, which appears on the Form 990-T.

(To learn more about what private equity is and how to research private equity investments in 990 forms, check out this webinar (powerpoint and video) we held with several campus climate groups).

Through researching the names of the funds tied to the university “partnerships” listed in the Form 990-T, you can find out more about what your institution is invested in. For example, if you go to ProPublica’s Form 990 search tool and enter “Mount Holyoke College” you’ll see a link to the Form 990s for “Trustees of Mount Holyoke College.” If you click on that and then click on the most recent 990-T (from 2018), on pages 12 and 13 you’ll see come of the college’s most recently disclosed investments in private equity funds.

You can do some research on all these funds and the firms that manage them to find more information about what your school invests in and who it invests with. Here, we see some funds that are clearly invested in fossil fuels – Kayne Anderson Energy Fund IV, Natural Gas Partners IX, and Yorktown Energy Partners IX and X, for example.

If we do a news search on just one of these funds – “Yorktown Energy Partners X” – we find hints, for example, that the fund invests in a coal company called Ramaco Resources (indeed, Yorktown Energy Partners lists Ramaco as a portfolio company on its website, and Ramaco’s most recent proxy statement (p. 17) lists Yorktown Energy Partners IX as a 26.9% beneficial owner, Yorktown Energy Partners X as a 8.6% beneifical owner, and Yorktown Energy Partners XI as a 13.1% beneficial owners. Yorktown is also entitled to appoint five directors (p. 3) to Ramaco’s board).

You can also research the firms that oversee the funds. For example, if you search “Oaktree Capital,” which Mount Holyoke invests in through four funds, you can discover that they’ve been targets of criticism for their role in investing and profiting off of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

Not all universities disclose the names of the funds they invest in. Some merely refer to generic “partnerships.” If they do this, there isn’t much you can do except ask your school to do the same as some other universities and voluntarily disclose more information on its investments. You can also look at filings going further back where information might be disclosed. For example, Pitt doesn’t disclose the names of the funds it invests with in its 2018 990-T, but it does so in 2017.

Sometimes the private equity funds that universities invest in are tied to sketchy people. For example, the University of Michigan invests in a fund that helps bankroll the business operations of a Texas oil billionaire who helps fund that state’s ultra-right movement and has helped lead efforts against things like reproductive rights and equality for transgender people. The University of Michigan Climate Action Movement was able to successfully use this information to add pressure to their university around investing more ethically and freezing their investments in fossil fuels.

3. Strategic web searches

You can find a lot of information on university investments simply by doing searches on the web, but it helps if you use a few specific search tactics. Here are three:

i) Combine your school’s name with financial language search terms, such as Portfolio, Endowment, Investments, Private equity, Fund, ETF, and so on. For example, a search of “Michigan State portfolio funds” takes you to results that include MSU’s “List of Investments” – ie, the range of funds it invests in and the amounts it invests.

ii) Use Google search operators to really focus your search results. You can search specifically for certains types of files, like PDFs and PowerPoints (good for finding financial reports, presentations, and portfolios). For example, if you do a search filetype:PDF “University of Michigan”  “portfolio” “private equity” a host of PDF disclosures of investments show up. Or, you can use the “site:” search operator to only search keywords on a specific website. For example, when you search “energy” you get only search results from the UM Regents site that mention “energy”

(Note: if you are concerned about digital security when it comes to using Google, an alternative search engine you can use is DuckDuckGo, which also has search operators. You can also take precautions in using Google, such as logging out of your Google account when you perform searches. For more information on digital security, visit our “Digital Security Tips for Researchers” page or the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Surveillance Self-Defense” site).

iii) Combining key words described above with a site search of business and financial news sites can sometimes generate useful results. Examples of useful business and financial sites include: Pensions & Investments, Bloomberg, Institutional Investor, Barron’s, and any of the Crane’s business news sites. For example, the search “university of michigan” turns up a host of articles on UMich’s investments (and if you add “oil” or “energy” to the search, investments tied to those terms).

4. University financial reports and federal data sites

Most universities have financial offices that have web pages that contain investment reports and other information on university finances. These sites sometimes disclose portfolio investments, but many don’t. However, you can still find useful information about your school’s finances and how its investments are allocated.

First, just search your school’s name and search terms like “investment office,” “finance office” or “financial report,” and you should be able to easily find the right page. For example, if you search “Smith College’ financial office you’ll find search results that include Smith’s Finance and Administration page. If you scroll to the bottom of that page you’ll see links to the college’s annual financial reports. If you click on the most recent one (2019) you can scroll through it to find all kinds of information: a breakdown of assets, sources of operating revenue and cash flows, allocation of assets and investments, data on property, bond obligations, and more. Analyzing this information can help you get better informed when making arguments about divestment. Sometimes these university financial office websites even have information on specific portfolio investments.

One other place to find information on university finances is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Database System (IPEDS), a U.S. Department of Education site that contains survey data completed by universities. For example, if you go here and click on “Look up and institution,” you can enter your school’s name. If we enter, say, University of Iowa, we arrive at a page with all kinds of institutional data (see the video below for examples of what you can dig up here).

5. Pitchbook

Finally, the financial database Pitchbook can be very useful in researching university investments. You need a subscription to use Pitchbook, but if you’re connected to a university (especially one with a business school) you may very likely be able to use Pitchbook through your institution’s subscription (contact your main campus library to find out).

After logging onto Pitchbook, you just enter your university’s name and go to its profile page. Then you can scroll down and see what funds and partnerships it’s invested in (see the video below).

Two notes of caution in using Pitchbook: First, not all investments it lists are current, so try to verify everything. Second, Pitchbook aggregates data from the financial press, online databases, corporate disclosures, press releases, and the like. It’s a research tool that you can use to find leads, but it’s not an end-all source on an entity’s financial information. There’s a lot that could be outdated and/or not included. So again, try to verify anything you find (or, if you can’t, present the data publicly as “According to the financial database Pitchbook…”)

One last thing: Pitchbook is a great tool for researching the specific companies that private equity firms and private equity funds invest in. So, you can take the names of the firms and funds that you find in Form 990s (see point #3 above) and plug them into Pitchbook to find research leads on the fossil fuel (and other) companies that your school invests in through various funds.

In sum, through smart, tenacious, and patient research, and by using certain search tactics and databases, you can often – not always, but often – find information on your university’s specific investments. And when you do, you can then strategize about ways to use that information as leverage to advance your campaign around fossil fuel divestment.

If you want to create free visual maps that connect the dots between your university endowment and the fossil fuel industry, check out LittleSis’s Oligrapher. Also check out our Map the Power toolkit for more power research tips.