Students petition for divestment from coal

Last Wednesday, College Council (CC) passed a resolution declaring its support for a proposal to the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) that would ensure that the College does not directly invest its endowment in coal. The proposal, spearheaded by the Williams Divest Coal Campaign, also encourages future divestment from other fossil fuels and a renewed commitment to socially responsible investment.

“CC’s vote last week to support this resolution shows that as students we believe that our school’s commitment to sustainability and citizenship beyond the Purple Bubble is not mutually exclusive to a thriving endowment,” Max Heninger  ’14, CC co-president, said.

The Williams Divest Coal Campaign is sponsored by Thursday Night Grassroots (TNG), a group dedicated to addressing issues of climate change and promoting environmental awareness on campus. “We are asking the school to formalize its commitment to environmental and social responsibility,” Zoe Grueskin ’14, a member of TNG and leader in the divestment campaign, said.

The divestment campaign is based on a movement initiated by environmental activist Bill McKibben, who founded the organization 350.org to discourage the release of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Last fall, McKibben organized the “Do the Math” tour, where he and several leading activists travelled across the country to spread the message that immediate action is necessary to reduce the emissions from fossil fuels such as coal.

“Coal is not the direction we want to be going,” Grueskin said. “It releases the most carbon dioxide out of fossil fuels, has an immense impact on places where it is mined and causes many health problems.”

The Williams Investment Office, which controls the portion of the $1.8 billion endowment that is directly invested by the College, is not currently investing in any of the 100 companies that, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, collectively possess 20 percent of the world’s coal reserves.

The proposal to the ACSR addresses the 97 percent of the college endowment that is invested by investment managers. While the College does not control which companies outside brokers invest in, the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees, with recommendations from the ACSR, is able to outline policies that the investment managers must abide by.

Additional efforts by the Williams Divest Coal Campaign played a large role in CC’s decision to pass a resolution supporting a student proposal to the ACSR, which was founded during the South African apartheid divestment push to allow for more input on the management of the endowment. “Thursday Night Grassroots’ efforts to build student support behind divestment through a petition with over 200 signatures and an event at The Log with over 130 people certainly helped them get the resolution passed,” Heninger said.

The Williams Divest Coal Campaign has even spread beyond the students of the College, as alumni are also getting involved. “A number of alumni who have reached out to the [College] and expressed interest in the issue think Williams should be a national leader,” Sam Lewis ’15 said. Lewis, a member of TNG, mentioned several alums who have written letters to President Falk, including one who declared that they would no longer donate to the College until the institution had pledged to make no new investments in coal.

“When people first hear about divestment as a tactic, they think it won’t do a lot,” Grueskin said. “But it’s really about using institutional strength, using our authority as a respected institution, to show our opinion of a practice we disapprove of.”

  • Steve Wagner

    I would have like to have also seen here some non-ACSR, dissenting analysis arguing the inefficacy of socially responsible investing (SRI), including alternative approaches such as “shareholder activism” in which individuals and large investors remain invested/engaged with perceived irresponsible corporations in order to steer them toward more responsible behavior (e.g., clean coal, gasification, etc.)