College will not publicly commit to divestment, despite taking steps to end ties to fossil fuel extraction

Saud Afzal Shafi and Joe Fox

Four percent of College investments, managed by the Investment Office in Boston, are still tied to fossil fuels. (Photo courtesy of Williams College Investment Office.)

The College will not be making a public commitment to fossil fuel divestment but does not hold any direct investments in fossil fuels and plans to eliminate indirect investments in fossil fuels in the next several years, President Maud S. Mandel said at the Oct. 20 faculty meeting. According to Mandel, the College’s investment plan mirrors those of peer institutions that have committed to divestment.

“Williams is taking the same steps as other schools you’re reading about and some steps they’re not taking,” Mandel said at the faculty meeting. She confirmed that the College will not put out an official announcement about these steps.

“Investment strategies, including ours, shift all the time in relation to events, analyses, and market changes. We don’t announce them and never have,” Provost Dukes Love wrote in an email to the Record. “[Mandel] took the unusual step of discussing this issue at a faculty meeting in direct response to some questions she received about this issue, to help answer the question of how Williams compares to other schools.”

The College determined that alternatives to fossil fuel funds would adequately protect the endowment against inflation, according to Love. He added that the “uncertainty surrounding fossil fuels, including the strong likelihood of some form of (much-needed) carbon pricing” led to the College’s decision to decrease investments in fossil fuels.

The question of why Mandel and the College’s Board of Trustees will not be making a public statement has garnered significant on-campus attention, especially since many peer institutions, including Amherst, Middlebury, and Wesleyan, have already released divestment commitments. Speaking to the Record, several students expressed frustration about the College’s refusal to offer a public commitment to divestment, a move they said would allow for greater accountability.

Love said that focusing only on divestment would minimize the importance of other sustainability initiatives. “The decision to move away from fossil fuel funds is unlikely to have an impact on carbon emissions, and certainly not one that we can measure,” Love wrote. “As the College reduces its own indirect investments, other investors will step in, with little impact on the operations of the fossil fuel industry. Much more important is the direct impact that we can have by focusing on our own emissions and especially on teaching and research focused on climate change.”

“Symbols matter, but the College does not view this particular decision as an especially important component of its sustainability strategy,” Love added.

The College ended direct holdings in companies involved in fossil fuel extraction in 2015 as part of its response to a divestment proposal signed by over 500 members of the College community and brought to the Board of Trustees in December 2014. While the College has not made new indirect investments in fossil fuel extraction since 2019, as of April 2021, 4 percent of the College’s investments that predated that decision were still tied to fossil fuels.

A 2015 statement by the board and then-President of the College Adam Falk specified that the move was not made as part of a divestment strategy but rather was a “strategic” decision made by the board’s Investment Committee.

The 2015 statement also argued that divestment is not part of the College’s climate change response because “divestment itself is a largely symbolic strategy, with little likelihood of having a substantive impact on the economic or social forces responsible for climate change, or on the political decisions that are necessary to address it.”

For students who are engaged in divestment activism, however, the College’s refusal to commit publicly to divesting signals its reluctance to throw its weight behind the cause. Coco Rhum ’24, a member of the divestment subcommittee of the College’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) club, said that divestment is as much about making an ethical statement as it is about the financial impact of moving away from fossil fuels.

Fellow YDSA member Lauren Lynch ’23 agreed. “A huge part of divestment is signaling to peer institutions … that it’s no longer ethical to have investments in fossil fuels,” Lynch said.

According to Lynch, formal divestment promotes accountability and transparency. “Other colleges have made their announcement public and therefore can be held accountable to the commitment that they’ve made,” she continued. “Because Williams hasn’t said anything … they haven’t really committed.”

Shaurya Taxali ’24, who took an economics tutorial on carbon offsets, said that divestment should not be considered the most important component of the College’s environmental policy. “When talking to a lot of students on campus about divestment, they focus on [it] like that’s the main issue,” Taxali said.

Rather than pressuring the College to divest, Taxali said that students should place greater scrutiny on the College’s steps to reduce carbon emissions. “We have the Zilkha Center, we have solar panels all around campus … but I don’t see enough action from [the College],” Taxali said.

“There’s so many ways that students and the College could reduce direct emissions. And that’s much more meaningful than just divestment,” Taxali said. “The College should … [switch] old energy systems [into] new energy systems that are completely green, [and replace] all the bulbs into more energy-efficient bulbs.”

“Almost 15 percent of [an individual’s] total emissions is their diet,” Taxali added. “Does the College want to enforce [a vegetarian diet] on the students to make that sacrifice so that carbon neutrality can be met?”

The College’s priority is to invest in renewable energy rather than divest from fossil fuels, Mandel wrote in an email to the  Record. “We are focused on where we can have the most significant direct impact, including in our research and teaching around climate change, our campus emissions, and our behaviors,” she wrote. “Since 2015, we have also prioritized impact investments.”

Rather than divestment, Love said that the College is more focused on sustainability goals outlined in the 2021 strategic plan, including reducing emissions from its central plant and College travel. “We are also excited about the growing number of investments in the endowment that directly support renewable energy, which now make up about 1% of the portfolio,” he wrote.

To Rhum, however, the money invested in renewable energy is overshadowed by the money indirectly invested in fossil fuels. “They have $30 million … in sustainable impact investment, which is small compared to the amount of money currently in fossil fuels,” Rhum said.

Students and alums have been pushing the Board of Trustees to divest since at least 2013. The Williams Divest Coal Campaign, later known as Williams Divest, brought the issue of divestment to the College Council and organized a march in 2015. Steve Kaagan ’65, a recipient of an honorary degree from the College, returned his degree in 2015 in protest of the College’s refusal to divest. In a 2015 College Council referendum, 70 percent of students voted in favor of divestment.

Will Royce, another member of YDSA, said the College’s decision not to officially announce its plans to move investments away from fossil fuels disregards the work done by divestment activists. “There have been years and years of movements about this very issue,” Royce said. “And you’re saying, ‘We didn’t realize that this was so important to communicate?’”

“It is in Williams College’s interest to make a statement,” Royce added.

Nigel Jaffe and Maria Lobato Grabowsky contributed reporting.