Let’s hold off on the Stanford coal kudos

May 14, 2014, 8:32 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Stanford University has gotten a lot of attention for becoming the largest university to support a national campaign to divest of direct investments in coal-mining assets. Specifically, it’s trustees recently “not make direct investments of endowment funds in publicly traded companies whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation,” and some news reports also have suggested that it will try to divest of any related private equity assets.

Supporters like Fossil Free Stanford hailed the decision as a “major victory for the climate movement and for our generation.” Opponents like Kentucky’s Democratic Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes said: “Drying up investment in mining and burning coal – which is what divestment policies such as yours aim to do – would inflict severe economic harm on my state of Kentucky and on other coal-producing states.”

But here’s the thing: No one really knows if Stanford’s decision is anything more than symbolic.

Stanford is a private university and, as such, does not publicly disclose much information about its investments. Sure the school’s endowment is $18.7 billion, but it’s entirely possible that a $1 billion endowment — or even $100 million family office — actually has more coal-mining exposure than does Stanford.

A Stanford spokeswoman declined to say how much it has invested in coal-mining assets, nor would she identify any relevant securities. Fortune reached out to several trustees, but none would discuss the holdings nor their decision.

What that means is that we don’t know if this was a tough vote of principle over profit, or if it was a vote of convenience. For example, imagine if someone kept asking me to promise that I’ll never buy a Lamborghini. There’s a decent chance that I’d do so just to make them go away (note: I cannot afford a Lamborghini).

To be sure, Stanford’s decision has raised this issue’s profile, with a hedge fund manager today telling CNBC that it could represent a “tipping point.” On the other hand, shares of the nation’s top four coal producers are mixed in the week since the announcement — with two rising and two falling.

So all I’m saying is that before cheering Stanford’s trustees as coal-killers or decrying them as job-killers, it’s worth noting that they may actually be neither.

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