A semester-long class project in sustainability became a reality this fall after two George Mason University graduates helped make a low-carbon mutual fund available for faculty and staff.
The project began in the Sustainability in Action capstone class taught by Environmental Science and Policy professor Dann Sklarew in spring 2016. Students in the class pick a problem and try to address it within a 15-week period.
Then-students Colin Nackerman, a sustainability major, and Samantha Parsons, a conflict analysis and resolution major, are both passionate about the university’s divestment from fossil fuels.
After looking at George Mason’s past silver- and gold-star ratings for its Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS) sustainability report, Nackerman and Parsons realized there was an unmet demand to put more money into socially responsible investing.
“They were really looking at how we can invest to affect social change and become more environmental,” Sklarew said.
Though they originally wanted the university to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, the pair realized that giving employees the opportunity to divest themselves could make a big impact.
“We realized that there’s probably more money being invested by employees into the market than the endowment investing in fossil fuels,” Nackerman said.
Last spring, he approached Courtney Ashmore, lead benefits coordinator for Mason’s Human Resources and Payroll, about adding financial services provider TIAA’s Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund option for faculty and staff retirement accounts.
“It’s [the faculty and staff’s] money so we want them to have options with their money that fit their values and needs,” said Linda Harber, vice president of Human Resources and Payroll.
Sklarew was the first faculty member to invest in the newly available fund. Harber said people are not always consistent in moving around their retirement funds when new investment options become available and may not have examined this new option.
The low-carbon fund was just one of Nackerman’s and Parson’s objectives for their project. They also established the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, created to find ways for Mason to be more socially responsible and make more sustainable investments. Made up of passionate students and faculty, this committee helped make the low-carbon fund possible.
“A lot of folks are realizing that investing in fossil fuels isn’t the best investment anymore and I think that trend is going to continue,” Parsons said.
While the committee has not met recently, largely due to student graduation and staff leave, Parsons said she hopes passionate members of the Mason community can come forward and advocate for more socially responsible investing.
From an educational standpoint, Sklarew says this investment has the opportunity for professors to show students that they are practicing what they teach.
“We’re serving as good role models and demonstrating that we care about the environment [and] we care about people who are less advantaged,” Sklarew said.
For more information about investment options, visit the TIAA website.