President Barry Mills took a seat in the middle of Bowdoin Climate Action’s (BCA) sit-in for fossil fuel divestment last night and debated with protesters for over an hour, reiterating that the College has decided not to divest, explaining why it made that choice, and taking questions from about 25 assembled students.

BCA has been occupying the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Hall, which houses Mills’ office, since Wednesday morning, pledging not to leave until the Board of Trustees commits to divestment. A handful of students have continued the sit-in overnight, sleeping outside Mills’ office last night and Wednesday night. 

Mills argued that divestment was a symbolic tactic that would damage the College’s finances without creating meaningful change.

“We don’t think that the trade is worth it because frankly—as you all admit on your signs—this is a tactic,” he said. “The result from the tactic is incredibly burdensome to the College.”

Matthew Goodrich ’15, an organizer of the sit-in, disputed Mills’ claim that divestment would be ineffective, pointing to the 1980s movement to divest from apartheid South Africa.

“In 1986 a bipartisan Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto of the anti-apartheid sanctions act because of the divestment movement,” he said. “It builds the political mandate for a carbon tax, and that’s why we’re doing it.”

“I hear it. We just don’t agree,” said Mills.

“Well, we don’t agree, and that’s why we’re here,” responded Goodrich. It was the first of several moments when Mills and the BCA protesters simply did not agree.

Mills also argued that in order to divest the roughly 1.5 percent of the endowment that is invested in fossil fuels, the College would have to stop giving its money to some of its highest-performing external fund managers.

“The tactic results in this College losing hundreds of millions of dollars and puts at risk all of the other things that we do for the common good,” he said.

Senior Vice President for Investments Paula Volent estimated in 2013 that divestment would cause the College to lose $100 million over a ten-year period.

Michael Butler ’17 asked if the College would still lose millions of dollars if it invested in fossil-free funds created by firms like Cambridge Associates. Mills said that it would, citing a study conducted by Cambridge Associates in 2013, which found that if Pomona College divested from fossil fuel companies, its endowment would grow by $485 million less over a ten-year period and would therefore generate $66 million less for Pomona to spend.

The protesters then argued that investments in fossil fuel companies undermined the College’s commitment to the common good.

“Is it appropriate for a university to invest in fossil fuels?” Goodrich asked Mills.

“Sure,” Mills responded after a short pause.

“Well, there’s where we disagree,” said Goodrich. “The point of divestment is to align Bowdoin values, right? We are the College for the common good. The College is something more than just a business model seeking profit at any cost. The College is a place of education and a place of values that has existed for a very long time, and Bowdoin is particular in that we have made it our mission to further the common good, and that role, I think, is being undermined by our investments in the fossil fuel industry.”

Several students noted that a number of other schools have committed to divestment in some form. The University of Maine recently announced its plan to divest, while Stanford and most recently Syracuse have pledged to end their direct investments in fossil fuel companies. Mills said that some of these schools’ announcements have been “cynical” and will have little to no actual impact.

“I don’t think it was real,” he said. “I don’t believe that any of those schools that divested, that said they will not directly hold fossil fuel stocks—I bet if you investigate those schools they don’t hold a nickel of stock of any company [directly].”

Bowdoin does not have any direct investments in fossil fuel companies, according to Mills.

Hugh Ratcliffe ’15, who said he was looking for the “middle ground,” suggested that Bowdoin announce that it will not directly invest in fossil fuels in the future, which would give the divestment movement more political clout without damaging the College’s endowment.

“I don’t believe in taking politically easy stands that don’t mean anything,” Mills told Ratcliffe.

Monique Lillis ’17 asked for more engagement from the College and said that BCA’s request for a working group involving students, faculty members and trustees was a reasonable one. Mills responded that the demand for a working group put the College in an unfair position, since it presupposed that the College would divest.

“If you just read the demand that you’ve created, that you sent to the Trustees, you didn’t write, let’s create a working group to discuss whether this is a good idea,” Mills said. “You wrote, we want a working group to work toward divestment. Since we don’t agree, you’re asking us to create a working group to do something which we don’t agree to.”

BCA said that it plans to continue its sit-in.