Vassar Celebrates Year of Divestment Accomplishments (and faculty push for divestment!)
Divest VC, Vassar's fossil fuel divestment campaign, is pleased to finish the school year with a stunning series of accomplishments. As finals were finishing on campus, Divest VC was ramping up its campaign to the next level: the last few weeks of the school year saw a meeting with the chair of Vassar's Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC), as well as a huge push for divestment among Vassar's faculty (see letter below).
Our accomplishments for the 2012-2013 school year have managed to gather massive student support for divestment, build a strong and well-connected campaign, and bring Vassar's powers-that-be (including administrators and trustees) into conversations about fossil fuel divestment. This past year, Divest VC has
- gathered over 500 student signatures in support of divestment from the fossil fuel industry
- presented our proposal to the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC)
- met with both President Catharine Bond Hill and Acting President Jon Chenette regarding divestment
- held a teach-in on divestment with presentations from several professors and a personal video from 350.org's Bill McKibben
- passed a Vassar Student Government resolution in support of divestment with an overwhelming 23-1 vote
- met with VC's Chair of the Board of Trustees Bill Plapinger
- Held a 60-student rally in front of Vassar's Alumnae House at the Board of Trustees' March meeting
- met with Christiana Wood, chair of the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC)
Though Vassar's Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC) ultimately rejected fossil fuel divestment at the end of the year, divestment is on their radar--and this movement is far from over. In fact, Divest VC will only gain steam as we move ahead and rally our community around divestment from the dirtiest coal, oil, and natural gas companies around.
And in a beautiful end-of-year accomplishment, 17 faculty signed onto a letter in support of divestment. They questioned the Vassar administration's rejection of divestment and highlighted--very aptly--that it is Vassar's moral duty to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Divest VC owes a tremendous thank-you to our supportive professors!
Check out this amazing letter:
To: Marianne Begemann, Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources,
From: Concerned Faculty (see appended list)
We are uncertain about the recent decision not to divest from the fossil fuels industry. The college community has heard no announcement or explanation, although some students were told about it in a meeting. We support the student effort to divest, and we request that the administration and the trustees respond to these questions:
- Some studies suggest that the financial impact of divestment is likely to be slight if the process is carried out gradually. Tom Steyer, founder and former co-senior managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, LLC presented arguments to this effect in a letter to the trustees of Middlebury College1. Available evidence suggests that the college’s endowment in fossil fuels is likely to be small2. Steve Dahnert, associate vice president of finance and administration, has expressed personal opposition to such divestment on the grounds that
- divestment would be costly,
- the endowment of the college is invested in commingled funds with mandates that are incompatible with college-directed divestment,
- shareholder engagement is a better strategy for influencing corporate behavior,
- the returns of these funds have been excellent in the past.
Christianna Wood, trustee, expressed similar views in a talk she gave on campus. What data or reasoning supports the opinion that divestment would be costly or that returns in current investments will be better than divested alternatives? Are the trustee investor responsibility committee (TIRC) or the campus investor responsibility committee (CIRC) considering shareholder engagement to change the behavior of the fossil fuels industry? How would this work for commingled funds?
- There are increasing arguments that fossil fuels are no longer as safe an investment as they have been2 because the equity of fossil fuels corporations rests on reserves that are several times greater than what is safe to burn in total3. These reserves represent much of the market value of the fossil fuels industry, which makes them questionable assets in the long-term investment strategy followed by an educational institution4.
Do the TIRC and the CIRC disagree? If so, why?
- The Vassar community is committed to justice and the betterment of society. Fossil fuels corporations are responsible for many of the world's worst ongoing environmental and social disasters. Much like the tobacco industry, this industry has funded denialism and successfully lobbied for its own interests while hurting the interests of humanity5.
How is direct financial participation in the fossil fuels industry consonant with Vassar's commitment to social justice and environmental quality? Is there a limited form of divestment in the fossil fuels industry, such as the Brown University proposal to divest from the country’s 15 largest coal companies or the 350.org list of 200 publicly-traded companies, that is acceptable to the TIRC and the CIRC?
- You, Ms. Wood, and students report that the board of trustees did not formally consider divestment from fossil fuels. Rather, the TIRC decided against divestment in fossil fuels on the grounds that the endowment would not be used for political purposes. Our governance states that the TIRC “shall review issues of ‘overriding social concern’ that might cause the college to take into account that concern in the management of the college’s investments.”
Will the TIRC make a public announcement of its deliberations about divestment from fossil fuels? If it has decided against divestment for political purposes, how can the TIRC carry out its governance mandate?
Thank you for your responses in these matters.
This memo originated from the faculty steering committee of the Environmental sSudies program. Not all members of this committee were able to participate. Those who were approved the memo unanimously. They are
Mary Ann Cunningham
When some other faculty learned of this memo, they asked to be included as signatories. They are
Candice Lowe Smith
2 Meinhausen et al, "Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C," Nature, April 2009 and "Unburnable Carbon" by the Carbon Tracker Initiative
3 A number of prominent analysts have described this as an impending "carbon bubble," based on the likelihood that profitability will plummet when unburnable equity turns out to have little value: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/19/carbon-bubble-financial-crash-crisis
4 Letter to Mervyn King, Bank of England, from Paul Abberley, Aviva Investors, and colleagues: http://www.climatechangecapital.com/media/256968/letter to bank of england financial policy committee - 19th january 2012 - final.pdf
5 See related discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/article/For-College-Endowments/137939/, and http://chronicle.com/blogs/letters/climate-change-requires-an-exception-to-no-divestment-policies/