Committee hears results of divestment referendum

The Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) met last Thursday to consider the results of the referendum to divest the College’s endowment from fossil fuels.

The referendum received 946 votes in favor of divestment, 70.81 percent, and 380 votes in opposition, 28.44 percent. Per College Council (CC) rules, the referendum needed to be voted on by least one-third of the student body for it to pass. In the February CC ballot, 1336 students voted on the referendum, which translates to 62.02 percent of the student body. Referendums represent the opinion of the student body, so CC usually works with the sponsors to publicize the issue and meet with senior staff members in order to promote the result. Two students, two faculty members and an alum involved with divestment presented the results of the referendum to the ACSR.

“They explained how much support there is for divestment in the college community, and that they hoped the ACSR’s report would reflect this.  They also explained why they thought divestment was important.  From its side, the committee explained that it welcomed their input, and was open to ongoing communication.  It was a good step in the process, but we have to wait and see what it yields,” Anand Swamy, chair of the ACSR, said.

The ACSR advises the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees on non-financial matters of the endowment. It is made up of faculty, administrative staff, alumni and students.

During the 2012-13 academic year, CC passed a resolution to support the proposal of Thursday Night Grassroots, now Williams Environmental Council, to divest the endowment from coal. Members of the ACSR did not agree to suggest divestment to the Board of Trustees, and the proposal never made it further, according to Sarah Vukelich ’16, co-founder of Divest Williams. The committee is working on a document outlining arguments for and against divestment, which it will present to the trustees.

“Their document seems to detail many sides of the argument and many possible approaches for Williams to take. We wanted to make sure that their report would reflect the overwhelming support of the community, faculty, staff, students and alums, on divestment specifically. We don’t want divestment to get buried under a series of less relevant arguments. The reason people are really fired up about divestment is this is how Williams can take action on climate justice in a way that will influence national policy, so we also wanted to make sure that this factor, impact on national policy, was weighted in arguments about each of the other possible approaches in the ACSR’s proposal. Overall it’s a slow process with a great deal of deliberation and we can’t afford to leave this stalled in the hands of the committee, which is why we are planning to meet with some of the trustees directly in April.”

Vukelich does not expect divestment to go before a vote of the Board of Trustees in April. She said that Divest Williams, though still focused on building grassroots support, is transitioning its focus to finding ways in which the College might divest without diminishing the endowment’s financial performance. One possibility could be to join with peer institutions to ask fund managers to provide portfolios that exclude fossil fuels investments.

“I see this as an opportunity for creativity,” Vukelich said. “We’ve talked a lot about the why of divestment. It’s time to talk about the how. No one from Divest Williams wants the College to be financially devastated. These are people who really care about environmental justice and Williams. We are working to make sure we know the financial side of things so we can all figure out how to make this a good thing for Williams.”