Jay Schalin of the Martin Center urges UNC-Asheville to divest itself from “irresponsible political posturing.”

The University of North Carolina at Asheville recently announced with great pride its plans to divest part of its endowment from investments based on “fossil fuels” (such as natural gas, oil, and coal). At a June 21 meeting, the Board of Trustees voted to shift $5 million of its $50 million endowment from the non-profit UNC Management Company to for-profit Walden Asset Management, a “socially responsible” fund manager owned by Boston Trust & Investment Management Company.

The school released photos of beaming students and administrators involved with the five-year divestment campaign, and trustees heralded the move in glowing terms.

But there is a big problem with this type of divestment by universities: it is a clear violation of an important principle of academic freedom known as institutional neutrality.

The principle has even been encoded for UNC schools with the passage of North Carolina Session Law 2017-196 (known as the “Campus Free Speech Act”) two years ago. Institutional neutrality is the concept that schools should not adopt official political positions on the issues of the day. One example that illustrates the division between academic freedom and institutional neutrality is that a school administrator has the right to state a political position as an individual scholar—but not in his or her capacity as a representative of the school.

While S.L. 2017-196 does not explicitly mandate a punishment for violations of neutrality, it makes clear that the standard for all UNC schools “regarding political and social issues and the essential role of such neutrality in protecting freedom of thought and expression” is articulated in the 1967 Kalven Report issued by the University of Chicago.