Trustees Say No To Divestment
Issue   |   Tue, 03/03/2015 - 23:16
Olivia Tarantino '15, Photography Editor
Members of the Green Amherst Project say they will cooperate with the board to devise strategies for improving sustainability on campus. However, they say they still support divestment from fossil fuels.

The board of trustees announced its unanimous approval of a statement on sustainability and investment policy Tuesday, Feb. 24. The statement formally acknowledged the dangers of climate change and proposed a responsible stewardship of resources to make environmental sustainability a focal point of the college’s operations and investment decisions.

Furthermore, the statement said that the board intends to work on achieving a carbon-neutral footprint and energy conservation efforts. However, the board emphasized that it did not endorse divestment from the coal industry.

The statement further elaborated on the board of trustees’ stance to not divest. The board said that it believes in a strategy based on analysis and engagement with the investment managers. “It is also a more effective way, over time, to assert those values...than systematically excluding individual companies, sectors, or industries would be ­— in other words, divestment,” the statement said.

The board said in its announcement that it would collaborate with the new Office of Environmental Sustainability and the Investment Office to find ways for the college’s endowment to reflect the environmental values of the college.

Director of Sustainability Laura Draucker said that the board’s approval of the sustainability and investment policy is an important step towards turning Amherst College into a sustainability leader.

“We have made great progress over the years with sustainability initiatives, such as energy efficiency improvements, co-generation of heat and electricity, local food through Book and Plow and the establishment of the Office of Environmental Sustainability last fall,” Draucker said. “The approval of this policy strongly supports further enhancement and expansion of these programs.”

In order to address all the points outlined in the board’s statement, Draucker said the Office of Environmental Sustainability will focus on “developing a strategy to achieve a carbon-neutral footprint, exploring alternative forms of energy, creating a revolving fund to support clean energy projects and working to integrate sustainability into the educational and community life at Amherst College.”

Furthermore, the Office of Environmental Sustainability recently created a Climate Action Plan task force, which consists of students, faculty and staff. The task force will work towards developing a carbon-neutral strategy as a response to the board’s recent announcement.

In response to the board of trustees’ decision, Green Amherst Project members have been discussing the group’s future initiatives. While they said they have no definite plans yet, the members have come up with three possible courses of actions thus far. The first option is to escalate the group’s current divestment campaign.

“If we want the board to divest, we need to give them a reason to do so,” Green Amherst Project member Brian Beaty ‘17 said. “This may involve more direct actions on campus such as protests and sit-ins. Another option we have is to create what’s called an escrow fund, which essentially allows alumni to withhold their donations until Amherst divests.”

Beaty said that another option is to stop pushing for divestment and cooperate with the board of trustees and its requests. However, the Green Amherst Project’s statement that was released on Feb. 24 said that while the group looks “forward to working with the board to achieve our shared goal of responsible investment of our endowment,” it claims that in the end, responsible investment is divestment. Then, the last option is for Green Amherst Project to push for both divestment and on-campus sustainability. While the group’s members are divided on the ultimate course of action, Beaty said they see this as the most ideal course of action as the group will continue pushing for divestment, but still work with the board.

In the statement on Feb. 28, the board of trustees said that the original issue of divestment was raised with respect to direct investment of the endowment in the coal industry. The statement clarified that “at the time [of the issue of divestment first being raised at Amherst], Amherst had no direct investment in coal, and Amherst still has no direct investment in coal.” The board’s position is to push for sustainability in the college’s community and investment process, but not by withdrawing investments from coal industries.

Nonetheless, the Green Amherst Project members said that the board of trustees directly manages only a small portion of the college’s $2.15 billion endowment, and the rest is controlled by external investment managers.

“The board says they have no say over where these managers choose to invest the school’s money, but we suspect that they could if they tried. Our next best step for divestment may be to contact these managers ourselves,” Beaty said.

Chief Investment Officer Mauricia Geissler said that while the college’s Office of Investment and the Investment Committee will not pursue a policy of divestment, the college will continue to address social, environmental and governance issues with investment managers, the board of trustees and the campus community. For example, the office evaluates the college’s shareholder proxies in alignment with ESG principles.

“As the board’s statement says, each of us makes trade-offs around fossil fuels every day. It’s no different for an endowment. This will be a dynamic and ongoing process of inquiry, analysis and engagement with Amherst’s investment partners,” Geissler said.

According to 350.org’s project Fossil Free, which campaigns for fossil fuel divestment, 21 universities and colleges nationwide have committed to divestment from fossil fuels so far. For example, Hampshire College has been committed to fossil free investment since Dec. 2011. Other institutions that have entirely divested include Pitzer College, Stanford University and University of Dayton.

The day after Amherst’s board of trustees announced that it will not divest, 233 faculty and staff members at Williams delivered a letter to the college’s president Adam Falk and the trustees, asking for the college to divest its endowment holdings from fossil fuel companies.

In the letter requesting divestment, Williams faculty members wrote that just as the school’s mission statement says an education at Williams is a privilege to serve the society, the college should “model such responsibility for our students, just as we must take seriously our own commitment of ‘ensuring that our college operations are sustainable’ — a sustainability that includes operations of our budget, and thus, our investments.”

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