A case for divestment

As the Board of Trustees considers a proposal to divest the Williams endowment from fossil fuels, I offer a perspective from Sterling College, which completed its fossil fuel divestment in 2013 and is now stronger and wealthier as a result. I believe that divestment is the smart choice for Williams, not only because the symbolic action is one of the most effective strategies for shifting the political and economic paradigm that stifles efforts to meaningfully address climate change, but also because divestment will make Williams an even stronger and more relevant institution.

For Sterling, where I serve as Director of Admission, divestment was clearly the right choice. Environmental stewardship is central to the mission and curriculum of this Vermont college. Sterling is on track to produce every kilowatt of its electric power from on-campus solar arrays and wean itself completely off fossil fuels for heating the campus, a bold move given the frigid winters in northern Vermont. We produce another form of energy here as well – students and faculty work together on the Sterling Farm to grow 20 percent of the food served in the dining hall. Often, as I walk around campus, I’m reminded of Mark Hopkins and the Log, although at Sterling, students would use their axes to fell the tree and buck the log, harness the campus draft horses to skid it out of the woodlot, and then turn it into a canoe.

When the Sterling Board of Trustees voted unanimously to divest, they did so primarily in order to align our investments with our values. The decision to divest, however, also triggered an unexpected groundswell of support. In the two years since Sterling divested, applications for admission are up by half and income derived from fundraising has doubled. Divestment struck a chord with key stakeholders, including prospective students and alumni, and helped establish Sterling as the leading voice for environmental stewardship in higher education.

Williams also has an opportunity to lead, and, I would argue, a responsibility to exercise leadership. I am proud of Williams not only because my dear alma mater so often appears at the top of college rankings, but because I see Williams as an institution that is engaged in constant self-inquiry, evolving in thoughtful ways and rigorously reimagining what it means to offer the finest possible liberal arts education and nurture academic and civic virtues. Williams could rest very comfortably on its laurels – and its endowment – for the foreseeable future, but it is not doing so, and this quality of ceaseless striving sets a strong example of leadership. Divestment from fossil fuels is a bold step, but bold steps are consistent with the tradition of excellence at Williams and the College’s relentless emphasis on thoughtful inquiry and self-examination.

Interestingly, fiduciary responsibility, often cited as an argument against divestment, was actually a contributing factor in support of the Sterling Board’s decision to divest. The often-condescending argument that divestment is a non-starter because it creates undue risk, was flipped on its head. Led by the late trustee and co-founder of Clean Yield Asset Management Rian Fried, the Sterling investment advisory committee persuaded the Board that divestment would actually lessen financial risk by protecting the endowment from volatility in the fossil fuel sector. As the price of oil yo-yos and fossil fuel companies boom and bust, this practical argument in favor of divestment looks prescient from a purely economic standpoint. Today the Sterling endowment is doing just fine, growing steadily and rising well above pre-recession levels.

Divestment would be the right choice for Williams even if it were unpopular, and even if it slowed the growth of the endowment. Climate change and associated environmental collapse are the great challenge of our age, and divestment is one of the most effective tools we have to shift political structures and entrenched interests that stand in the way of change. Those who benefit from each hydrocarbon burned will defend the status quo, but the arguments against divestment are as hollow as the great American falsehood that a bigger house and more expensive car will equal a higher quality of life. It is high time that Williams turn the same spotlight of civic-minded inquiry that pervades the academic and cultural life of the College on its endowment. Divestment will help Williams do good, and do well.

Tim Patterson ’04 is Director of Admission at Sterling College. He lives in Craftsbury Common, Vt.