On conflicts of interest: Holding the Board of Trustees to a higher standard

As alumni from the class of 1966, which gave $5 million to build the new Environmental Center, we hope President Adam Falk will attend environmentalist Bill McKibben’s campus lecture on April 20, listen to his call for action to stem climate change and reconsider the College’s decision to preserve the fossil fuel assets in its endowment portfolio. Falk opposes such a sale because he believes that it would be a meaningless gesture. However, he has avoided what may be the crux of the matter — conflicts of interest which hit some of the trustees in their pocketbooks and color their world views.

Consider the fact that on Oct. 5, 2016, Board of Trustees Chairman Michael Eisenson ’77 wrote to the Record to spell out the Board’s position on climate change (“Green financing: The College’s investment in reversing climate change”). “To the many members of the community who have urged the College to lead in the fight against climate change: Thank you,” he began. However, he continued, because of the complexities involved in stripping oil and gas assets from the endowment portfolio, the Board has made “a studied and careful decision not to adopt a divestment policy.”

The same day, Eisenson’s private equity firm, Charlesbank, announced it was selling their stake in Blueknight, a crude oil, gas and asphalt services company, for $95.3 million. Another potential conflict of interest comes from trustee O. Andreas Halvorsen ’86. Speaking at a forum in Griffin Hall last fall, he accused students campaigning for divestment of being spoiled children who didn’t understand how the real world worked (“Is the administration listening?: Divest Williams responds to trustee condescension,” Nov. 9, 2016). Nowhere did he mention that his hedge fund held significant stakes in four oil companies or that he and some colleagues personally controlled 5.4 percent of one of them.

We calculate that ten of 21 trustees have material financial links to the oil and gas industry. For example, the most recently elected trustee, Mark Tercek ’79, is the president of The Nature Conservancy. This position sounds environmentally friendly, and his board appointment was hailed by Eisenson as proof of Williams’ commitment to fighting climate change. Nevertheless, prior to this post, Tercek ran the environmental markets group at Goldman Sachs, which has made billions of dollars from dealing in oil and gas.

As students know, trustee Joey Horn ’87 resigned when it was publicized that she and her husband had been convicted in a court in Oslo, Norway for employing two Filipino au pairs, rather than the one they were legally entitled, and making them work 60 hours a week, twice the legal limit. They may even face jail time. (“Joey Horn ’87 resigns from Board following conviction,” Feb. 22, 2017). Falk’s silence on the matter coincided with the construction of a new dormitory financed by the Horns and their earnings from the oil and gas industry (“Horn Hall opens as new residence,” Sept. 14, 2016). It raises suspicions that the College hoped to get away with spending money tainted by the oil and gas industry.

If liberal institutions like Williams expect the country to take us seriously again, we need to clean up the messes in our own backyards first. A start would be the sale of the oil and gas assets in the College’s endowment portfolio. The College should also list its fossil fuel assets and register the fossil fuel interests of the trustees.

Peter Koenig ’66 lives in London, U.K.

David Tobis ’66 lives in Oakland, Calif.

  • Augustine25

    It think it will be a long time before the world takes Williams College seriously. It is, as I have referred to it elsewhere, a formerly prestigious institution. Trustee O. Andreas Halvorsen ’86 is correct to observe that students campaigning for divestment are spoiled children who do not understand how the real world works. The folks at Williams College are hopelessly mired in the passed and seemingly unaware of the evidence opposing their ever changing take on climate change just as Republican victories across the board and Trump’s victory in November demonstrate to the world.