Alumni, students petition for divestment

In an effort to urge the College’s Board of Trustees to divest the endowment’s holdings in fossil fuel corporations, the Williams Endowment Initiative, an alumni and student organization, is circulating a petition intended for submission to the Board of Trustees.   

The petition, which has received almost 500 signatures, requests that the Investment Office avoid further investment in the 200 largest fossil fuel corporations and divest the endowment of its current direct and indirect holdings in these organizations within the next five years. The petition also calls for the reallocation of these funds to green, environmentally friendly corporations. 

The Williams Endowment Initiative petition is separate from the student petition organized by Divest Williams, a student group. Divest Williams has collected signatures to create a CC referendum in order to gauge student opinion on divestment from fossil fuels. The groups share the same goal of divesting the endowment from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. 

Prior to the start of the Williams Endowment Initiative in the fall of 2013, Thursday Night Grassroots, a student organization dedicated to combatting climate change, launched an effort to prevent the College from making direct investments in coal companies, which would impact the three percent of Endowment funds not invested by a money manager.  There was also a panel during Claiming Williams Day 2014, composed of members from the student body, faculty, alumni community and the Williams College Investment Office in Boston. They discussed the logistics and merits of eliminating the College’s financial stake in fossil fuel companies.

In addition to sponsoring the petition, the Williams Endowment Initiative is employing other means to engage and build support in the College community for divestment.  The organization will submit a proposal to the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, a board which advises the Trustees’ Invest Committee. The Endowment Initiative has also maintained a blog highlighting the work of students and alumni on environmental issues and plans on holding an event during Reunion in June, 2014 to raise awareness of environmental issues. 

“I think that Williams equips students with the skills and passion to go out and make positive change in the world, and I think that divestment gives Williams the opportunity to make positive change as an institution. Fossil fuels are harmful to the environment, and I think that Williams should be proactive in supporting the environment and green energy by divesting,” Garrett Welson ’15, who is the liaison to the Endownment Initiative of Divest Williams, the student group that works with the Iniative, said.

The divestment movement at the College is among hundreds of similar initiatives across the country within colleges, municipalities and other institutions.  The divestment movement has grown since  2012, thanks in part to the work of American environmentalist and author and activist Bill McKibben.  By December of 2012, divestment initiatives were active on 192 college campuses, and 256 were active two months later.  Several victories for the divestment movement emerged from these efforts. Hampshire College, Pitzer College, the University of Dayton and other colleges committed to divesting their endowments according to McKibben’s organization, 350.org. 

The divestment movement also generated critics.  Harvard University President Drew Faust, in declaring her opposition to divesting the University’s $36.4 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, argued that Harvard’s endowment exists “to advance [Harvard’s] academic goals” and, accordingly, no investment strategy should be undertaken if its objective is not to secure “the endowment’s financial strength.”  Similarly, the Corporation of Brown University opted against divestment from coal companies arguing that it is “not the right tool for achieving the societal goals to which we all aspire.” 

In spite of the apparent obstacles, students remain engaged in pursuing divestment. Miles Horton ’15, co-leader of Divest Williams, said, “My personal interest in divestment came out of concern about climate change more broadly; I had this realization earlier this year that as long as the CEO of Exxon Mobil could just walk into the halls of Congress with his head held high, nothing was going to change – the fossil fuel industry was going to maintain its grip on every aspect of our politics and economy. And really the only way to change that would be for institutions like Williams, that have some degree of credibility and moral authority, to stand up and say ‘We want no part in this, and no one else should either – we really can do better.’ We do so much good stuff, environmentally, on campus already, but divestment represents our only chance to be part of the movement that resonates beyond the boundaries of our valley.”