President Mills said the College would not agree to divest the endowment of fossil fuels in the immediate future on Tuesday, just one day before Middlebury College announced plans to investigate the feasibility of divesting its own endowment.
“At this point, we’re not prepared to commit to divest from fossil fuels, but I would never say never,” said President Mills on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after meeting with a group of students, led by Matthew Goodrich ’15, who petitioned for divestment.
“We expressed to him that this is an issue that the student body cares very deeply about and that we really want to move forward with this,” Goodrich said.
Goodrich was glad Mills agreed to sit down with his group and engage on this issue that students care about, even though the meeting did not result in an optimistic prognosis for divestment.
“The fact that he met with us, I think, is huge,” said Goodrich, whose petition to divest the endowment currently has 470 signatories—nearly a quarter of the student population.
Goodrich sees this is as a moral issue, insisting that the College is obligated to invest in green funds in keeping with its commitment to sustainability.
College administrators, however, said the endowment should be kept separate from politics.
“Management of the endowment is squarely situated with our Board of Trustees and, to some extent with the President of the College,” said Mills. “It is not something which at Bowdoin—or frankly any other institution—is subject to a large democratic effort as to how the money is invested.”
Paula Volent, senior vice president for investments, agreed with Mills, writing in an email to the Orient that investment decisions should remain in the hands of the Trustee Investment Committee.
Environmental activist Bill McKibben is currently spearheading a nation-wide movement for the divestment of college endowments from fossil fuels. His “Do the Math” campaign intends to bring national attention to the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions.
“The ethical choice is not to invest in industries that are destroying the future for our children,” McKibben said at a rally in Portland last month.
On Wednesday, Middlebury College, where McKibben is a scholar-in-residence, announced it is looking into the possibility of divestment.
“A look at divestment must include the consequences, both pro and con, of such a direction, including how likely it will be to achieve the hoped-for results and what the implications might be for the College, for faculty, staff and individual students,” Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz wrote in a campus-wide email.
Liebowitz also said that 3.6 percent of Middlebury’s $900 million endowment is invested in fossil fuel corporations at present.
While Bowdoin has seen a modicum of public debate on the issue of divestment, at Middlebury the topic has generated considerably more controversy. Earlier this year, a group of students released a fake press release announcing that the school would be going forward with plans for divestment, and were subsequently found to have violated college policy by failing to “[communicate] with honesty and integrity,” an expectation outlined in the Middlebury Student Handbook.
Though the students were reprimanded for their actions, they were not subjected to any official disciplinary action.
Goodrich was enthusiastic that Middlebury’s announcement would move Bowdoin closer to action.
“We are comparable in very many ways to [Middlebury] so it’ll be great to see how it works for them and to see how far they get,” he said.
Students have also been pushing the issue outside the NESCAC.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that students at Swarthmore College are also petitioning for divestment.
Unity College, located just seventy miles away from Brunswick, recently announced it had successfully divested from fossil fuels, though its $10 million endowment is significantly smaller than Bowdoin’s, which stands at just over $904 million. Hampshire College is exporing the possibility of divestment as well.
“This is gaining momentum, and I’m incredibly happy that Bowdoin is part of the movement,” said Goodrich.
Though Mills and Volent both stated that the endowment is not a platform for political statements, there have been exceptions to this policy.
Only twice in the history of the College have administrators supported divestment for political reasons: in the 1980s Bowdoin took a stand against apartheid by halting investment in companies doing business with the South African government; in 2006, Bowdoin did the same with the Sudanese government in response to the genocide in Darfur.
Mills explained that in these instances, “there was widespread national and international agreement that the subjects that we were dealing with were abhorred.”
Mills said that climate change has not generated the same universal consensus and does not meet “the test that Darfur and the issues in South Africa raised, where there was universal agreement,” said Mills.
Though there may be a growing grassroots movement in the country condemning fossil fuels, Mills argues that our government is not actively condemning fossil fuel corporations.
“Given the level of support that our government and institutions currently give to producers of fossil fuel, there’s no way to argue that there is a concerted movement in the United States to move away from fossil fuels,” he said.
Goodrich counters by saying that the pollutants from these companies put the future of the planet at serious risk.
“I’d rather have at least the opportunity to prevent the worst from happening, then having to clean up afterwards. I’m trying to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” Goodrich said.
Even if the College were to divest, Volent said she doubts that this would have a large impact on the industry on the whole.
“Markets are efficient and it is unclear if one group of investors decides to boycott a specific sector that there is any meaningful result,” she wrote in an email. “Other investors will step in and buy cheaper securities.”
Mills believes the discussion should focus on changing individual behavior to minimize consumption of fossil fuels.
“I actually think the way that businesses change their activities, it isn’t about who invests in their business, it’s about if they have enough customers.”
The meeting ended with an agreement that students would meet with Mills again at the beginning of next semester. Mills asked the students to bring him propositions for ways the College could be “less of a customer of fossil fuels."
Goodrich is confident that there will be movement in the future on this issue.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “We look forward to really working with the administration and really being able to show that this is not only possible but necessary.”
Goodrich believes that in continuing to invest in fossil fuels, the College would be acting against its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2020, a goal that administrators have acknowledged will be difficult to reach.
President Mills emphasizes that the College pledged only to reduce its carbon footprint, not to make significant changes to its investment portfolio.
Goodrich is insistent that the two issues are deeply intertwined.
“If we can talk about greening our facilities, we can definitely talk about greening our portfolio,” said Goodrich.