On Friday morning, Steve Kaagan ’65, who earned an honorary degree from the College in 1984 for his service as Vermont’s Education Commissioner, returned his degree in light of the Board of Trustees’s decision not to divest the College’s $2.253 billion endowment nor follow the other suggestions of Divest Williams, a student-run organization backed by other members of the community that leads the fight on campus for fossil fuel divestment.
Kaagan returned the degree by directly handing it to President Adam Falk in his office.
“Steve Kaagan’s gesture reflects his passion that Williams play a leading role in addressing the critical issue of climate change, a passion that I fully share,” said Falk in a statement to the Record. “Where we disagree, respectfully but profoundly, is on what form that leadership should take to be most effective. Nonetheless, I respect and admire Steve’s commitment to the health of our planet.”
Kaagan, who had been on campus since last Wednesday demonstrating a climate change simulator to students and faculty, laments the change he has seen at the College since he was a student. “I love this place. I gained a lot from it. I have no beef with the students and faculty at this College,” Kaagan said. “But I do have a beef with the President and the Board of Trustees. Williams suffers from … a corporatized culture, pretty much dominant within the Board of Trustees.”
Kaagan also critiques what he sees as “an overbuilt environment” at the College today. “Williams was always a privileged place … [but] there was always a sense that there was an important level of institutional responsibility that had to be effected,” he said. “I’m not sure whether that is still the case. It seems to me that Williams needs to do some self-reflection. Certainly, the leadership needs to do some self-reflection.”
Kaagan cites what he sees as prolonged negligence in the battle against climate change as motivating him to return his honorary degree. “Probably what is going to happen on the whole planet is that we are going to have to engage collectively in a level of sacrifice, and my question two years ago to President Falk was what level of self-sacrifice is this place of privilege, Williams College, going to engage in. I’m not sure if it’s possible for the leadership to understand that,” Kaagan said.
Kaagan also expressed concern that the College has allowed its prestige to drive the institution into complacency. “This place is purportedly No. 1. There is a certain braggadocio that comes with that and there is a strength that comes with that but there is also weakness that comes with that,” Kaagan said. “And the question that always arises [is if] Williams is on the verge of complacency. Is Williams on the verge of becoming too attached to its No. 1 status? Is the Williams brand going to be as strong 10 years from now if the trustees do not face up to this incredible challenge of climate change?”
Beyond the College’s decision not to divest, Kaagan also expressed frustration with what he sees as an overall lack of attention to the issue of climate change: “There were any number of positive, progressive changes that could have been taken by the Board of Trustees. But [the Board] did not even get to first base.”
Though the College does plan on investing $50 million over the next five years to achieve carbon neutrality through “efficient buildings, renewable energy projects and climate change education,” Kaagan does not believe the plan goes far enough. “There is a great urgency in dealing with this issue. It’s unclear what extreme weather we will be dealing with five years from now. We do know that unless we cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, we will be in deep trouble. It’s not something that can be put aside.”
Kaagan does assert, however, that he gets no joy in returning his honorary degree.
“I’m going to miss that degree as a part of my identity to be honest,” Kaagan said. “But I think the sacrifice is clearly worth it. It is a piece of paper. I’m not fasting for three months, although I might at some point. I am not going to jail, although I might at some point. For me, though, it is an important piece of symbolism. I do love Williams, believe it or not.”
Divest Williams explained the need for collaboration in order to achieve divestment.
“The fossil fuel divestment movement at Williams extends far beyond just the students,” Erica Chang ’18 said. “We are constantly working with alumni, and the preparation for this action was no different. Reaching full fossil fuel divestment will not happen without collaboration between all [of the] College’s stakeholders: students, faculty, alumni and staff.”