Fuel for thought

We at the Record support the Williams Endowment Initiative and Divest Williams in their decision to increase demands for divestment to a real, substantive target that would have an actual effect on our investment decisions. However, we think that entirely divesting the endowment, most of which is invested indirectly through fund managers, from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies, is such a large endeavor that the most we would back at this juncture is a committee convened by the trustees to investigate the potential impact of the move and its repercussions for the College’s funding. We should weigh the costs of contributing to environmental degradation and those of reducing the College endowment to make the right choice.

The last time students called for divestment, they called only for the directly invested portion of the endowment, which at the time made up about 3 percent, to be divested from coal, which it already was. We called then for them to propose a real change, and we stand by that call. It’s important to advocate for an environmentally friendly agenda, and in an ideal world a school like ours that calls itself socially-conscious would divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewables. Stopping or at least slowing climate change is an urgent necessity which will require major sacrifices at least in the short term.

On the other hand, divesting the endowment would be a largely symbolic move that would require a massive overhaul of the way in which the College invests. We do not have control over the decisions of the outside managers we invest with, and so we would have to return to a system in which we invest directly for this proposal to be feasible. While the school’s mission is to make the world a better place, the endowment pays for education and financial aid, and educating students is the primary purpose of the College, not socially-motivated investment. The College’s educational mission is to train students who will act in socially-conscious ways, which may have a greater, more direct impact on the world. If the College’s capacity to do those things were to be seriously jeopardized by divestment, that would be unacceptable.

The activists at the Williams Endowment Initiative and Divest Williams are of course aware of these complaints and have their versions of the numbers to support their cause. Before making such a major change, however, we would like to see an independent, outside investigation of the impact, much like with previous major changes to college policy.

However, we agree with them that it is wrong in principle for us to benefit from investments in these morally abhorrent companies. We realize that we have as a student body profited and continue to profit from these investments, and we’re not ungrateful for that, but in principle we are opposed to those investments. Once an independent study is undertaken to determine both the social impact and the educational risks of divesting, then we can make the decision as to whether the social costs of being invested in fossil fuels are high enough to justify the educational concerns. We also want to be sure that if action is taken, the plan is sufficiently long term for non-liquid assets that we do not to pay penalties in order to divest.

Finally, whether or not we divest, it can only be one piece of a larger movement to reduce carbon emissions. Climate change is a demand side issue, caused by the universal embrace of fossil fuels for all aspects of life. Actions to reduce our own emissions and to create public policy that forces reduced emissions on others are much more important than slightly reducing the stock market value of oil companies, and that, too, can begin at home.