A seat at the table: Continuing the fight for divestment

September 21, 2016 by Eliza Klein and Steve Kaagan

One year ago, President Adam Falk announced in a campus-wide email that the College would not divest its multi-billion dollar endowment’s fossil fuel holdings. The Board of Trustees decided to remain invested in the fossil fuel industry despite overwhelming calls for divestment from hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni. Since this decision was issued, Divest Williams and the Williams Endowment Initiative continued to fight for divestment, and have been largely ignored. There’s been no ac-knowledged role for us at the decision-making table, no direct consultation.

Two weeks ago, Falk sent out another campus-wide email about climate change. This email was more promising, and outlined new climate action commitments the College is making this year. We’re appreciative of these commitments, yet we feel they are insufficient. As an institution of incredible wealth and power, the College must be a leader in saying no to the destructive practices of fossil fuel corpora-tions and to the immense chokehold this industry has over our government and economy. Campus sustainability improvements, though welcome, aren’t enough. We need divestment.

On Saturday, Maxine Burkett ’98 argued for divestment in her convocation speech.

The bicentennial medalist stated, “I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the College’s struggles with the divestment question. While I know that one school’s decision on the matter is not the linch-pin to decarbonizing the global economy, I also do not diminish the collective strength of small acts or underestimate the violence that facially neutral investment portfolios can mete on struggling and disproportionately impacted communities in our country and across the globe … I am with you all along the way.”

Burkett is part of a growing mass of students, past and present, who feel that continuing to invest in such a harmful industry is unacceptable, especially as the College claims to be “confronting climate change” this year.

Inviting Burkett to speak at convocation was a positive step forward for the College. Burkett’s writings on the disparate impact of climate change on poor communities and communities of color have been revolutionary. That the College chose to recognize her for her scholarship and activism is honorable. And the administration has taken other exciting steps that we want to commend: reducing emissions, funding renewable energy projects, pursuing impact investing and, perhaps most importantly, recognizing the intersections of climate change, race and colonialism.

These new commitments to climate action are encouraging. We’re glad that the College is beginning to work with entities beyond campus, including Williamstown. For years, we’ve been urging the College to extend itself beyond the purple bubble, and these initiatives represent modest steps in the right direction. Additionally, we’re grateful that Falk has expressed a willingness to collaborate with fellow institutions on impact investing. Engaging with the endowment’s fund managers is exactly what we, Divest Williams, advocated for this past spring after we discovered that the administration never actually contacted its fund managers about the possibility of divestment. The Investment Office sent a letter to them earlier this month. Having said this, it’s imperative that the administration explain how impact investing will affect the endowment, how extensive it will be and when it will begin showing results.

We’re excited about these positive steps, but they can hardly be construed as leadership. Col-leges across the country have already embarked on these types of initiatives, while students, faculty and alumni have been pushing the College to act on climate and divest from fossil fuels for years. Only now is the administration responding. Most importantly, these small steps are insufficient given the scope and urgency of the climate crisis. They’re certainly not commensurate with the potential reach and influence of an institution whose endowment exceeds the Gross National Profit of several island nations that are about to be submerged. We can’t address climate change solely by spending money on local sustainability improvements; we also must confront the industries at the root of the crisis.

Now that the College is moving in the right direction, it’s time for the president and the board to open their decision-making process to input from students, alumni and faculty. As the College frames more aggressive steps to confront climate change, it will need the perspective and wisdom we’ve gained over the past several years. By giving us a seat at the table, there will be added transparency to decision-making that will likely affect all of us, and will certainly affect the future lives of current students. Such transparency, which students have been asking for consistently, will assuredly enrich the substance of the College’s choices going forward.

If the administration doesn’t open its deliberations to those who have substantive contributions to make, be assured that our advocacy will continue unabated until the College takes on a leadership role proportional to its wealth. We reject the claim that we should stop pressing the school to divest, and instead accept the current climate plan. As Burkett voiced in her speech, “the speed and magnitude of climate change means we must use all of the tools we have and turn up a good deal more. I think that as students and alumni it is a welcome responsibility to lovingly prod, encourage, model and unveil blind spots for this institution.” We agree in every respect. As concerned students and alumni, it is our job to hold the administration accountable, to push the College to be better. We will not rest until the College stops profiting from an industry that lies in direct contradiction to its stated values. We will not rest until we have a seat at the table.

Eliza Klein ’19 is from Cambridge, Mass. She lives in Mark Hopkins. Steve Kaagan ‘65 was an American studies major. He lives in Asheville, N.C.

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