The events of this week have proven that divesting Bowdoin’s endowment from fossil fuels is not merely the naively idealistic project of a small cadre of students. On Wednesday, the lead story on the New York Times’ website reported that divestment movements are emerging at over one hundred colleges across the country. On Wednesday, Middlebury agreed to consider the possibility, and to actively research strategies for divestment. At Bowdoin, the push for divestment has grown from a few students holding signs in protest last month, to a core group of over 20 students who showed up to lunch with President Mills on Tuesday with charts and figures in hand, determined to move the issue forward. Mills told the students that the College would not commit to considering divestment in the immediate future.
Mills is rightly reluctant to implicate the endowment in a political cause, and Goodrich’s group needs to be sure its proposal takes all of the implications of divestment into account. Meeting the needs of students is the College’s first priority. About 40 percent of the endowment goes toward financial aid; if it suffers as a result of reallocated investments, students will be directly affected. Information on how Bowdoin’s endowment is invested is not publicly available. Without this data, Goodrich’s group will not be able to tailor a workable divestment strategy for Bowdoin. We cannot meaningfully weigh the actual costs and benefits of changing our portfolio and we have no way to verify the impact divestment might have on the College’s budget without this information.
President Mills has said that breaking ties with the fossil fuel industry does not pass the high bar for divestment-worthy causes set when the College decided to stop investing in companies doing business in Sudan and South Africa. Efforts to diversify energy sources—and to move away from the fossil fuel industry—are crucial to ensure the long-term economic well-being of the U.S., not to mention the longevity of our planet.
This should not be an either-or conversation. We laud Middlebury’s willingness to explore alternative investment choices. Exploring potential options and then charting a course towards gradual divestment need not come at the expense of personal adaptations, such as continued efforts to consume less, or infrastructural changes, such as installing more solar panels or increasing the number of fuel efficient vehicles in our fleet. There may not be consensus on what institutions like ours can or should do about climate change. But as a community of higher education—founded on goals of fostering critical thinkers and future leaders—the College owes students the opportunity to grapple with these challenges, an endeavor hampered by the current opacity of our investments.
In 2007, seniors Katherine Kirklin and Holly Kingsbury persuaded Mills to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, catalyzing the campus’ current Carbon Neutrality Plan. Their success came only after a year of extensive research, an independent study, and multiple dead-ends in Mills’ office. In his 2007 commencement speech, Mills commended the students by name, applauding their ability to move “beyond political rhetoric” and to “translat[e] science into policy and economics, finance and practice.” In forwarding fossil fuel divestment, students must not just learn the science of global warming, but the economics of institutional investment. Bowdoin does not jump into any kind of change big or small (see our article on the academic calendar), and the time frame for diversifying energy investments will likely exceed the tenure of Goodrich and his supporters at the College.
There are no easy solutions. Global warming is inarguably one of the defining issue of our generation. Rather than benching the divestment debate, let’s productively engage with the hard questions it raises.