Green Amherst Project Encourages Administration to Divest Investments from Coal
Issue   |   Wed, 10/17/2012 - 02:35

On September 7, climate change activist Bill McKibben visited Amherst College and gave a speech in Johnson Chapel that addressed a crowd of over 800 people. It was a strong message that acted as the launching pad for Green Amherst Project’s divestment campaign on campus, a campaign advocating for the College to divest all of its direct investments from coal.
In the last year, the divestment movement has rapidly picked up speed, as students from college campuses across the nation begin to urge their schools to eliminate endowment investments in coal and oil companies. It was conceived as a way to move the United States, a country where university endowments comprise 4.9 million dollars of the economy, beyond fossil fuels and towards a new, renewable energy future.

In an effort to unify these college-based movements, the Responsible Endowments Coalition (REC) was founded in 2004 and now has over 40 universities and colleges working on launching divestment campaigns. It works to encourage social change through environmental change by starting with the investment of college campuses throughout the country, which will hopefully translate to a change in policies in the broader national and political spectrum.

Deidre Nelms ’13 decided to begin the effort in Amherst towards the end of August after working with the REC over the summer. She began to discuss and plan the campaign with a group of Amherst seniors shortly before the new school year began.

“We had our first meeting with the investment office to find out more about specific holdings and feasibility on September 11,” said Nelms.

Eight students gathered in Dawn Bate’s office to ask her questions about the endowment and launching a divestment campaign. The largest past divestment campaign at Amherst was in 2006, when a collection of students successfully proposed divestment from Sudan, taking two academic years to work with the investment office, collect research and present a proposal to the full investment committee. The Sudan divestment policy is one that the school continues to act on even now, and the investment office continues to hold its management on its restricted company list. Green Amherst Project’s campaign is relatively modest in comparison.

The goal of the campaign is to call attention to how Amherst manages its investment by urging the College to make a policy statement that would prevent future direct investment in coal. The students who form the campaign believe that the endowment is part of Amherst College’s values, which include sustainability and environmental support. To them, the investment is part of who the school is as an institution.

“We have an environment studies department that tells us climate change is a serious issue and if we don’t act in the next 15 years, the planet will suffer consequences,” Nelms said. “If we are still invested in coal and fossil fuels, it’s almost as if we don’t believe in our own environmental message. The fact is that we don’t know what our investment is. They say our endowment is transparent, but we only know percent — it’s definitely not.”

The campaign has already created an electronic and physical petition that is circulating the student body, while also conducting individual outreach and encouraging the faculty to write letters to the Board of Trustees. Four years ago, the College had passed the creation of an Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), a student-run group composed of students, faculty, alumni and staff, which meant to ensure that the College was being more proactive as a shareholder in areas where it does own direct investments.

“The ACSRI was the result of students wanting to be more involved in a broader way in thinking about the endowment and what investments are in the endowment,” said Mauricia Geissler, Chief Investment Officer. We’re not here to tell the student base what is important to them and how to affect change that way. This group provided input and recommendations via staff that ultimately were shared with the investment committee when we voted our proxies for the shares we own. Most of the input was around social issues.”

Gessler also added that, “We hold zero direct equity exposure to coal companies.”

In the last two years, the ACSRI has fallen inactive, and part of Green Amherst Project’s goal is to revive this committee. Nelms has been working towards reaching out to all parts of the campus; she presented to the AAS on Sept. 24 and met with President Martin on September 28.

“Biddy said that it is doubtful that our request could be put to a vote by October, but that it might be possible for Green Amherst Project to speak with a handful of Trustees in October and that the Board might vote on it spring of this year. She says that she personally supports our proposal and will talk to the chair of the Board, Cullen Murphy, about it,” said Nelms. “Amherst was one of the last colleges to divest from South Africa — we shouldn’t make this mistake again when it comes to investments in dirty energies.”

Though the Amherst movement is still at its beginnings, Lauren Ressler, the national organizer for the REC, is confident that it, and the broader national movement, will only grow larger.

Ressler said, “One of the biggest things is that universities are now aware that there is student pressure to move into socially responsible investment practices. The university is a microcosm of everything that is happening in the broader world. We really need to have a statement as young people that risking the stake of our future of our universities leads to a broader trend of how other companies invest. Why are we putting so much at risk? Don’t you want to know where your money is?”