To the many members of the community who have urged the College to lead in the fight against climate change: Thank you. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I want to express my appreciation for your passion and your conviction that the College must make a serious commitment to address this urgent crisis.
While there is a diversity of opinion in our community as to what constitutes meaningful action and what form our leadership should take, please know that every member of the Board shares your passion and is deeply committed — many of us in our personal or professional lives as well as in our institutional roles — to working toward solutions.
Last year, we announced our efforts to address climate change. They included investing the endowment in climate-addressing opportunities, reducing our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and investing in our educational mission, including making anthropogenic climate change a campus-wide theme of inquiry. Mark Tercek ’79, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, called them, “the kind of concrete actions that colleges can take toward lasting change.” Mark is now a member of the Board of Trustees, and we couldn’t be more pleased to have his expertise and wisdom at the table.
The divestment movement at the College and at other institutions has inspired many to consider climate change more urgently and fully than ever before. In response, we are endeavoring to invest the College’s endowment in projects, companies and technologies that benefit the environment. As President Falk described in his letter to the campus earlier this month, we have already committed to significant investments in two solar projects that will enable a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use in Williamstown. Importantly, after spending months developing plans for integrating impact investments into our investment pool and meeting with fund managers, peers and consultants, we’ve just made our first impact investment, and more are to come.
With respect to the endowment, the Board made a studied and careful decision not to adopt a divestment policy. Although the decisions of peer institutions were not an important part of our analysis, most of our peers have, in fact, reached the same conclusion. Further, the College’s exposure to fossil fuel investments is not materially different even from those schools (at least those with substantial endowments) that have announced they’re divesting. In almost all of those cases, the decision to divest was limited to direct holdings of certain stocks, and the institutions had few if any direct holdings from which to divest. The vast majority of their assets are held in commingled funds that were unaffected by this divestment approach. The College made a strategic decision to phase out all direct holdings several years ago.
Still, we know that many in our community want the College to try to influence the broader investment community on the issue of climate change, and so the College’s Chief Investment Officer, Collette Chilton, recently sent the letter below to our fund managers, more than 60 in all.
“Dear Williams College Investment Manager:
“It is extraordinary for us to write to all Williams College investment managers. However, the urgent matter of global climate change warrants action by the College across many dimensions, including this one.
“Last September, Williams College President Adam Falk and the Williams College Board of Trustees announced that Williams would assume a visible leadership role and take specific, substantive and comprehensive actions to contribute to the important work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Williams’ plan is ambitious …
“At the heart of the plan are commitments to reduce the College’s greenhouse emissions, achieve carbon neutrality, and invest significantly in sustainable-energy and carbon-reduction projects, as well as in the College’s educational efforts related to the environment. We expect these planned investments will total approximately $50 million over the next five years.
“We write now to seek your help in this effort. We ask that you consider carefully the impact of potential investments or investment strategies on greenhouse gas emissions, and that you endeavor to understand and, where appropriate, influence the environmental responsibility practices of the companies with which you are involved.
“We appreciate the work that you do on behalf of Williams College, and thank you for helping us with this critically important initiative. We welcome any questions you may have and look forward to further dialogue with you.”
We hope this effort contributes to a heightened sensitivity among our managers to the environmental impacts of their investments and strategies. And we hope that, with increased institutional investment in renewable energy and broad efforts to reduce energy consumption by individuals and institutions — thereby decreasing the demand for fossil fuels — we’ll begin to see lasting change.
Michael Eisenson ’77 is chair of the Board of Trustees. He lives in Wayland, Mass.