Letter to the editor: Public divestment will have a minimal effect on Williams’ carbon footprint. We should do it anyway.

Samantha Murray

Dear Editor: 

I’m a Class of 2014 alumna, writing in response to the recent article published in the Record, College will not publicly commit to divestment, despite taking steps to end ties to fossil fuel extraction.” The article was brought to my attention by current Williams students who are, in their words, “continu[ing] the divestment activism from the 2010’s,” which was heartening but also made me feel very old.

In the article, Provost Dukes Love defends the College’s decision not to commit to divestment. The argument can be summarized in three parts: we don’t need to publicly divest from fossil fuels because 1) we hold so little stake in the industry that the effect of our divesting would be negligible, 2) such a commitment would distract from other, more important sustainability measures, and 3) it has not been our practice to publicize investment strategies, and we see no reason to start now.

Each part of this argument fails. First, as the student leaders quoted in the article correctly point out, the purpose of divestment goes beyond the College’s individual impact. Divestment signals to peer institutions and other similarly situated actors that it is not ethically acceptable to invest in an industry whose core business model mandates the destruction of our shared home. 

Second, the College’s argument that a public commitment to divestment would somehow distract from its sustainability priorities is a classic straw-man argument. If Williams is already planning to eliminate its indirect holdings in fossil fuels (as the article states), then why not commit to that decision publicly? If divesting is so much smaller a step than Williams’ other sustainability objectives, then why not eliminate this piece of low-hanging fruit? And how, exactly, does a public commitment to divestment detract from efforts like “teaching and research focused on climate change”? As I recall, my classmates and I were able to participate in climate activism and still complete all of our schoolwork.

The heart of the argument really lies in its third component. The powers that be are reluctant to let “outside” voices affect the College’s endowment investment strategies. Presumably, some are worried about the “slippery slope” this precedent would set: If the College divests from fossil fuels in response to student activism, what would the students target next? Defense companies? Private prisons? Inhumane labor conditions? (I mean, ideally, yes, but that’s a whole new article for someone else to write). 

I understand where the College is coming from. Managing an endowment of this size is a Herculean task surely made harder when putting up with the scrutiny of non-experts who are convinced you are screwing it up. But I challenge this assumption that those who are not a part of the Board of Trustees or the investment committee are really “outsiders.” It would be more accurate to consider us — prospective students, students, faculty, staff, alums, community members, etc. — stakeholders. And just as business leaders across the world are learning they can ignore stakeholder demand for environmental, social, and governance information only at their own peril, so too should the College’s investment team rethink its attitude toward adjusting its portfolio to better align with stakeholder values.

Samantha Murray ’14 lives in Newport Beach, Calif., and is a recent law school graduate specializing in environmental law.