We are pleased to present the view on divestment of more than 220 Williams College faculty and staff members, which will be presented in a letter to President Falk and the Board of Trustees later this week. Our letter is another facet of the entire community’s urgent concern for how we can best contribute to meaningful action to address climate change. We are timing the release of the letter to let the student body know of our perspective as they hold their own campus-wide referendum for divestment this Thursday through Saturday. Our alumni as well are demanding action; they have already submitted a well-reasoned, extensive proposal urging the Board of Trustees to divest, signed by nearly 600 alumni.
We ask that faculty and staff read the following and consider joining this powerful call for action.
We … have been heartened in the last months to witness an energetic student and alumni movement to divest our college holdings from the 200 largest publicly-traded companies in the fossil fuel industry. Through a series of thoughtful and enlightening debates and conversations since last year, we have come to believe wholeheartedly in the efficacy, necessity and urgency of this demand. We would like to offer our support to the student and alumni-led campaigns, as well as our own reasons for supporting divestment.
The faculty and staff, like the President and the Board of Trustees, are stewards of an endowment that has been given in trust to our college explicitly as an investment in our shared future. In our mission statement, we rightly ask our students “to understand that an education at Williams should not be regarded as a privilege destined to create further privilege, but as a privilege that creates opportunities to serve society at large, and imposes the responsibility to do so.” We must model such responsibility for our students, just as we must take seriously our own commitment of “ensuring that our college operations are sustainable” – a sustainability that includes operations of our budget, and thus, our investments.
As a respected institution of higher learning, we are in a position to have a voice in one of the most important public debates of our time. The most immediate, and perhaps most important, virtue of being at the forefront of divestment is to help shape this debate, and to demonstrate for our students the power of rhetoric and activism in all of its forms, both institutional and individual. We believe that we should convey to our students that knowledge and responsibility happen at the College, as well as in other leading institutions. If we want to continue to attract the brightest and most forward thinking students, faculty and staff, from across the country and around the world, then leadership is not a luxury, but a necessity.
In the matter of climate change, the effects of which are already catastrophic, we are obligated to eschew the traditional risk-averseness of venerable institutions and act instead as leaders in the public sphere. In light of existing data, it is difficult to credit the arguments that we have heard against divestment, particularly those that pessimistically imagine a more certain financial outcome of divestment than can be predicted for any of our investments. Moreover, if we use accounting systems that include the externalities of damages caused to the planet and its economic systems, investments in fossil fuel companies are poor choices.
We must do what we can to address climate change in substantive ways, not least because we know already how immensely costly it is. As sharers in the stewardship of the College, our endowment managers ought to exercise not just caution, but also agility, vision and a keen sense of the future; it is indisputable that climate change itself, not just climate policy, will affect the economy. The U.S. National Climate Assessment, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and the Stern Review all detail significant economic changes generated by climate change and a responsibly invested endowment will not only respond to, but also anticipate these changes. What’s more, shifting our investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy will enable new technologies that will be essential to our energy future.
Written into the very core beliefs of our college is the understanding that “no one can pretend to more than guess at what students now entering college will be called upon to comprehend in the decades ahead.” Yet we do know that climate change will be a defining challenge of their lives. Even as we are actively working to understand the magnitude and duration of change that we will experience, the actions we take today will impact not only the future of the College and our immediate community, but of all species, including ours, and of our planet.
We find ourselves at a critical moment where we can make choices that will affect the quality and nature of what our lives will be like 50, 100, 1000 years from now. The urgency of responding to climate change cannot be overstated. We join in partnership with our students, alumni and other members of the College community in our commitment to changing the future we all now face. Because divestment has the proven capacity to shift public opinion and the terms of the current debate on climate change, we believe it is a crucial next step.
Hank Art is a professor of biology. Shanti Singham is a professor of Africana studies and history.