Public relations spinners at the University of NSW were trying to promote the "top 50 things to do on campus". Instead, they have received a torrent of complaints about the university's investments in fossil fuel industries.
Students and enivronmental activists have hijacked a UNSW Twitter hashtag, #UNSWtop50, to draw attention to the university's investment portfolio, which they argue contributes to climate change by funding coal, oil and gas projects.
“Best thing to do on campus: stop investing in fossil fuels,” students tweeted.
It's not the first time Twitter users have seized on a marketing stunt - Qantas was left red-faced when its 2011 #qantasluxury campaign was flooded with complaints about the airline's service.
And UNSW is not the only university to be targeted over fossil fuel investments.
The Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP), chaired by former Liberal leader John Hewson, has asked 300 of the world’s leading universities to answer a questionnaire about their investments. The AODP aims to improve disclosure around investments and inform investors about the climate risks posed by those choices.
Joshua Sheppard, program manager of the global universities index at the AODP, said UNSW has more than $500 million invested through managed funds, including in resources companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto.
The University of Melbourne has more than a billion dollars in its portfolio, Mr Sheppard said, with little public information available about where it goes.
“We’re talking about quite substantial amounts of money,” he said.
In March it was also revealed that Melbourne’s Monash University declined to take part in the AODP’s research. Monash chief financial officer David Pitt accidentally emailed Dr Hewson a copy of advice to his own vice-chancellor recommending the university ignore the request.
“Better not to respond so this group would have to rely on public information and we would simply be in a position to say that we are unaware of their scoring and did not participate,” the email said.
But UNSW Students’ Representative Council environment officer Nicholas Gurieff said the campaign to get UNSW to reconsider its investments began last year, before the AODP questionaire was sent out in March.
He said the university executive initially promised to take the issue to its finance committee, but later told the SRC it would not consider fossil fuel divestment.
“We’re disappointed in their unwillingness to engage in meaningful dialogue on the issue,” Mr Gurieff said.
UNSW claims it has no control over its fund manager’s decisions and has nothing it can report to the AODP. The survey asks investors to contact their fund managers for that information. Mr Gurieff said many funds now offer portfolios that do not invest in fossil fuel industries.
Student newspaper Tharunka reported that vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer thought divestment could affect the learning of those students who will inevitably find work in the fossil fuel industry.
The university has been contacted for comment.
No Australian universities have yet responded to the AODP questionnaire. The deadline has been extended to June 30, Mr Sheppard said.