Green buildings, dirty money: Calling on the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels

April 13, 2016 by Mike McGinn and Sophia Wilansky

Last October, Steve Kaagan ’65 returned his honorary doctorate to the College in response to its decision not to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. “By failing to divest its endowment of fossil fuels, or taking any other action that reaches beyond its borders, Williams has undermined its mission,” Kaagan argued. His action stands with those of other alumni who have protested continued investments by colleges and universities in the fossil fuel industry. Scientist Jeremy Leggett set the standard for such protests, returning his earned doctorate to Oxford in response to the university’s refusal to divest. Just this week, Scotia Bank Portfolio Manager Naghmeh Sabet of McGill took a similar stand.

On March 15, 2016, students from Divest Williams met with President of the College Adam Falk regarding the Board of Trustees’ decision not to divest from fossil fuels despite the persistent requests of numerous students, faculty, staff and alumni. The divestment petition on the Williams Endowment website presently has almost 800 signatures, and over 350 faculty and staff have signed a letter to the administration in support of divestment.

The Trustees have expressed that their primary reason for not divesting is that divestment would require switching fund managers and alter the College’s investment strategy. We have learned from Falk that the Board of Trustees never indicated to their fund managers that there was interest in divestment. Were the College to engage in earnest with the challenges of climate change and environmental justice it would undertake serious communication with its fund managers about the desirability and feasibility of fossil fuel divestment or begin to actively seek out alternative investment vehicles.

Institutions of great wealth should invest with ethical and moral considerations. While good options for divesting are limited, they are proliferating as this is being written. And institutions of wealth, power and influence have a special obligation to advocate for more responsible investment vehicles. One way to do that is to communicate to fund managers that there is a sizeable demand for fossil-free funds. It is also an important statement that the College recognizes that its investments have moral weight and seeks to find feasible investment vehicles so that it can stop perpetuating and profiting from industries that inflict devastating harm on the planet and its inhabitants.

It is long past time for the College’s leaders to acknowledge that climate change is deeply related to all aspects of human experience, including the moral and ethical realms. This crisis is serious and urgent, increasingly endangering the livability of the planet and the wellbeing of its inhabitants. Will the College take any concrete steps toward addressing this existential threat to humanity beyond marginally decreasing its own emissions and hiring a few new professors? So far the only “divestment” the College has attempted is the removal of its avowed principles of civic responsibility from its financial decisions. The growing efforts toward on-campus sustainability and investments in local renewable energy projects are necessary and welcome, but by no means do they absolve the College of its broader responsibility. Any climate action plan truly “worthy of the College” must include strategies that allow it to move its investments out of the fossil fuel industry. Even if the College has chosen not to be a pacesetting leader on climate change, it can still chart a path toward doing the right thing.

Trustees must address fossil fuel divestment, along with other crucial issues affecting students, such as increasing transparency and accountability to the student body, reinstating the no loan policy, improving financial aid for international and undocumented students, creating an Asian-American studies program,and improving psych services so that it better serves queer students and students of color when the Board of Trustees meets this week. What unites issues like climate change and the violence of the fossil fuel industry with issues like the removal of the no loan policy is that they all disproportionately affect people of color and working class people. We stand at a tipping point in the College’s history where we must ask: who is this college for? As an alumnus and a current student, we call on the trustees to begin taking action that reflects the interests and values of the majority of the College community.

Sophia Wilansky ’16 is a theater major from The Bronx, N.Y. Mike McGinn ’82 was an economics major. He lives in Seattle, Wash.  

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