“Williams College divests from fossil fuels!”
What if this were a real headline? What would it look like if the College confidently stepped into the leadership opportunity that stands before us right now? What if our trustees – with the support of the vast majority of the student body, 250 faculty and staff and a broad alumni network – were courageous enough to divest our endowment from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest those funds in initiatives that support a just and healthy future for the College and for all people?
First, we would celebrate. Our campus community would gather on the steps of Chapin Hall to thank our president, the trustees and the administrators whose leadership made this change possible. The College, unlike so many others, responded not with cynicism, not with the self-defeating anti-leadership of, “No, it’s too complicated; this is not our responsibility.” Instead, the College, our college, listened and said, “Yes! Yes, we are teaching and researching climate change, we are aware of its devastating effects and we know our voice, our leadership, is needed now. How can we use this opportunity to generate momentum for moving away from fossil fuels and envisioning a new future?”
Alumni from all corners of the globe would open their emails to find an announcement from President Adam Falk and grin. They would tell their co-workers. It would be something worth boasting about. “Yeah, my college just decided to stop financing coal, oil and gas and reinvest in renewable energy sources … Yeah, I’m serious! They did it! How could we do that here?”
All major news outlets would run stories on the decision. Williams would be heralded as the first elite college in the country to commit to redirecting all of its investments away from the industry whose business model relies on removing more carbon from the ground than our current climate can tolerate. The front page of The Boston Globe would read, “Number One Ranked Liberal Arts College Divests from Fossil Fuels – Asks Peers to Join.”
Seeing the morning headlines, Harvard would feel the sting and Amherst’s president would mutter some expletives. Hopefully, she’d pick up the phone. “Adam? Hi, it’s Carolyn. You’re really putting the pressure on us with this divestment announcement. Can you tell me more about how you figured out how to do this?” Amherst would be the first of many schools to reach out and look to us as a model for what can be done to ensure a secure future for their institutions and a secure future for humanity.
How would we have done this? Divesting from some of the fossil fuel companies would be quick and easy. For the companies tied up in more complicated investment funds, though, the investment office would engage fund managers to alter their strategy and transition away from those who were unwilling to change, with the intention of divesting completely by 2020. We would take this deliberate and careful approach to maintain the strength of our endowment and ensure the sustainable future of the College community, making sure the two weren’t in conflict. In doing this, we would demonstrate the kind of innovation for which the College is known.
Would there be challenges? Yes. Can the College community rally to confront those challenges? It can. Students, faculty, staff and alumni would be galvanized by the success of the divestment campaign. If the administration took a creative approach to divestment, the College community would be inspired to re-examine the way we use energy and identify opportunities to significantly reduce emissions, sharing the work with peer institutions and challenging them to keep up. Alumni, moved by the College’s ingenuity and its commitment to long-term planning, would increase their donations and replicate changes in their current organizations and communities. Some would begin giving to the College for the first time, impressed that the institution was modeling real moral and financial leadership. The groundswell of support would be unprecedented.
Perhaps most importantly, the story would ripple out beyond the world of higher education. As our state governments discussed the divestment of municipal funds, and our federal legislators took up high-stakes climate policy, the College’s bold leadership would be offered as a model for what can be achieved when the leaders of an institution are willing to say: This is no longer an issue of how to maintain our status quo during a time of crisis. This is a moment to lead our community, and our world, into a healthier, more just future. As stewards of this institution, this is our responsibility.
And we are all stewards of the College – students, alumni, faculty, staff and trustees alike. Now is the time to show what type of stewards we want to be. I suggest it is not the time to be fearful followers; now is the time to be creative leaders. As a community, we cannot hide behind obstacles or stall when the path is not already laid out before us. This is a time to see challenges as opportunities. This is a time to lead with our creativity and our resolve.
Now is the time to divest and move forward. Let’s make this headline real.
Jen Lazar ’04 lives in Richmond, Vt.