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University adds ‘fossil fuel-free’ offering to faculty, staff retirement plans

New plan still has limited involvement in fossil fuels

<p>The new offering<strong> — </strong>the Vanguard FTSE Social Index Admiral Fund — came in response to employee feedback and was celebrated by environmental activists.</p>

The new offeringthe Vanguard FTSE Social Index Admiral Fund — came in response to employee feedback and was celebrated by environmental activists.

The University added a “fossil-free” mutual fund option to faculty and staff retirement plans in late December, Benefits Operations Director Kimberly Almeida wrote in an email to The Herald. 

The new offeringthe Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund Admiral — came in response to employee feedback, Almeida wrote. The addition was celebrated by campus environmental activist group Sunrise Brown, which had been urging the University to include such a fund in its retirement plans.

The new fund still maintains ties to the fossil fuel industry, according to analyses of the mutual fund’s holdings by investment research firm Morningstar and the nonprofit group As You Sow. But its involvement in fossil fuels is far lower than that of similar funds available to faculty and staff.

According to data from Morningstar, the new offering has a 0.91% involvement in fossil fuels, compared to a roughly 9.09% average involvement across all offerings. This average figure does not include money-market funds or fixed annuities.


The University’s Retirement Planning Committee approved the modification in late September, according to an email obtained by The Herald that Kurt Teichert, the chair of the Advisory Committee on University Resources Management, sent to student leaders of Sunrise Brown. 

Other University retirement plans contain investments in several companies linked to fossil fuel extraction, including Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Enbridge, The Herald previously reported. At the time, faculty members told The Herald that Brown’s retirement plans lacked environmentally sustainable investment options. 

Faculty and staff can enroll in University-sponsored retirement plans through the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund and Fidelity Investments. Faculty retirement plans previously offered only one sustainability-oriented fund option — the TIAA-CREF Social Equity Choice Fund. 

“A socially responsible fund has always been available on the TIAA platform, and Brown’s Retirement Plan Committee wanted to offer comparable options through both carriers,” Almeida wrote in an email to The Herald.

But 8.5% of the TIAA-CREF Equity Social Choice fund’s holdings are tied to the fossil fuel industry, according to Morningstar. The limitations of a widely adopted Environmental, Social and Governance metric allowed TIAA to greenwash the fund — or promote it as environmentally friendly on the surface — said Adjunct Lecturer in Environment and Society Cary Krosinsky in a 2021 interview with The Herald

E-Soo Kim, a member of the corporate communications team at Nuveen, a global investment manager of TIAA, wrote in a previous email to The Herald that TIAA selected companies with higher ESG performance relative to the rest of their respective industries when forming the Social Choice fund.

Kim added that the companies included in TIAA’s portfolios have made steps toward decarbonization and reduction of emissions.

The modification to staff retirement plans came as a surprise to Sunrise’s leaders, who had been pushing for a fossil-free retirement option as part of their DIRE campaign, which emphasized University dissociation from the fossil fuel industry.

In an April 2023 memo to ACURM — which advises the University on business and investment practices — Sunrise asked the committee to recommend that the University “require all retirement plan vendors to offer fossil-free retirement plan options.” 

“We had heard from a lot of faculty who were concerned that though they were dealing with their finances and their income, they could not choose to personally divest from the fossil fuel industry,” Sunrise Brown co-founder Isaac Slevin ’25 said.


It wasn’t until the committee agreed to meet with student activists that they learned one of their demands had already been partially met. In a Nov. 29 email to Sunrise leaders reviewed by The Herald — sent a month after the RPC approved the addition of a fossil-free option to faculty retirement plans — Teichert wrote that “ACURM received an update from the Brown Investment Office regarding Sunrise Brown’s recommendation,” and that the addition of a “fossil-free option” had been approved. 

The option is only available through Fidelity but faculty can invest in funds across both vendors. 

The selection process

“While the TIAA Social Choice fund is an effective offering that prioritizes certain environmental, social and governance criteria, it is not considered fossil-fuel free,” Almeida wrote. “The Committee worked to offer a core fund choice that was not just socially responsible but also fossil-fuel free.”

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The RPC’s third-party advisor led the committee’s selection process that considered “the universe of available socially responsible funds available on the Fidelity platform” before ultimately choosing the Vanguard FTSE Social Admiral Index Fund, Almeida wrote. 

“This fund was selected because of its extremely low-cost exposure to a broad and diversified index,” Almeida added. “The Committee also reviewed the fund’s socially responsible screening criteria and was comfortable with the process.”

Fossil fuel exposure 

The Vanguard “fossil-free” plan isn’t entirely free of ties to the fossil-fuel industry. Although 0.91% of the fund’s holdings are linked to fossil fuels, it earned Morningstar’s “Low Carbon Designation” and the firm’s second-highest possible sustainability rating. The Vanguard fund’s top holdings include Microsoft, Apple, NVIDIA, Amazon and Meta. It does not contain investments in companies listed on the Carbon Underground 200.

“Vanguard’s ‘FTSE-for-good fund’ is probably not high on the list of funds I'd like to see,” Krosinsky said. “I don’t think it’s particularly fossil fuel free, or particularly sustainable.”

But the Vanguard fund will be sufficient for most faculty members who want a sustainable investment option, according to Professor of Economics David Weil. “You have to be a pretty damn morally pure person to sort of think ‘I’m upset at Brown,’” Weil said. “I think if I was a person who wanted to have a fossil-free investing option, I would say, ‘Okay, now I have one.’”

Faculty guidance 

“When people start a job, they think about (a retirement plan), and then they don’t think about it a lot afterwards,” Weil said. 

The lack of awareness about the new offering among faculty reflects the lack of available education and guidance from universities on retirement plans, Krosinsky said.  

“There’s very little guidance provided as to what the options are when it comes to sustainability or anything related, and most faculty don't even know what to think,” Krosinsky said, noting that the impact of a sustainable offering will largely depend on the awareness of them and guidance about sustainable investment.

 “To just kind of bolt on a fund and then five faculty choose into it because they’re the ones who care — it's not gonna make a big difference and that’s not a perfect fund,” Krosinsky said. 

In an email to The Herald, Almeida said that the University had adhered to legal requirements that govern communications about retirement plan changes. 

“Whenever an investment choice is added to one of the retirement plans, Brown follows a formal and required communication process,” Almeida wrote in an email to The Herald. “Brown followed this process and also communicated the changes internally.”

Student activists respond

The retirement plan modification represented a win for student activists at Sunrise. 

“If you are working at an educational institution, and you have a vested interest in your students future,” Sunrise Co-Hub Coordinator Caitlyn Carpenter ’26 said, “you should have the option to take your money out of companies that are actively harming your students’ future.” 

Weil said that student activists would have the largest impact by making the case for sustainable retirement investments directly to faculty members. 

“Faculty at Brown tend to be pretty progressive,” Weil said. “If some activist wanted to do more, the thing they should do is hit (up) the faculty and say ‘Hey … do your part for the world, switch to the ESG fund.’”

“This is a way of putting your money where your mouth is,” he added.

Ethan Schenker

Ethan Schenker is a Senior Staff Writer covering staff and student labor. He is from Bethesda, MD, and plans to study International and Public Affairs and Economics. In his free time, he enjoys playing piano and clicking on New York Times notifications.

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