The administration’s response to the fossil fuel divestment proposal ("1.4% of College's endowment invested in fossil fuels") raised far more questions than it answered.
Unfortunately, it also publicly confirmed that Bowdoin’s official strategy is to maintain investment policies with no regard for environmental issues, while promoting its environmental achievements to alumni, students and grant agencies.
Why do I care?
During the recession I began speaking with the Development Office about the possibility of coordinating a family gift to the endowment to support the College’s environmental programs.
My wife and I both went to Bowdoin, and as members of her family have attended Bowdoin for at least five continuous generations, I felt there was significant support for such a family gift.
However, I also wanted at least some confirmation, however modest, that our funds would be invested in keeping with the College’s Environmental Mission Statement.
After several months of waiting, I received only the short reply that “the Bowdoin College Endowment is Invested Responsibly.” I asked for examples, policies or data to support this assertion and none were provided. At that point, we discontinued our discussion of a family gift.
So what’s wrong with the statement from President Mills and Paula Volent, senior vice president for investments, provided to the Orient?
The administration’s belief that “responsible investing” is a zero-sum game that involves giving up returns for environmental or social gain is misinformed.
As a chartered financial analyst and member of the New York Society of Securities Analysts, I know that institutional investors like Bowdoin have access to a very wide range of investment opportunities, particularly in the deep, liquid markets of developed countries.
There are many investment opportunities that would produce competitive returns and have a positive social and environmental impact; Mills and Volent's approximation of a potential $100 million loss in returns is extreme.
The statement provided to the Orient also contained several distractions. First, while the immediate issue on the table was a proposal to divest shareholdings from fossil fuel companies, the analysis of the Investment Office referred to some other broad definition of responsible investing.
Because of Bowdoin’s history of environmental programs and its environmental mission statement, I believe the students behind the divestment proposal have a strong case.
Second, President Mills' statement that “we are not a political action committee” is not relevant to the discussion.
Bowdoin also isn’t a restaurant, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t extraordinarily good or prevent the College from having a progressive record on food system issues in it own operations (I still miss the food).
The administration offers no suggestions for possible alternatives. Even mild options that would not impact investment performance, such as surveying fund managers on their proxy voting guidelines related to environmental issues, seem not to have been entertained.
Importantly, many possible strategies other than divestment do exist that can help align the College’s investment policies with its environmental mission statement.
For example, the College could calculate the carbon footprint of the major companies it is invested in and then create a fund to finance construction of a photo-voltaic array on campus to offset that amount of carbon (see www.TruCost.com).
The College would then be in a unique leadership position with the first carbon-neutral endowment. I would be first in line with a gift.
The chances of environmental issues fading away are effectively zero. Over time, Bowdoin's current policies will cause the gap between the College’s investment policies and its stated environmental aspirations to widen, at great risk to the College’s reputation.
Bowdoin’s administration and stakeholders will be better served by greater transparency, open discussion, and thoughtful consideration of creative alternatives.
Just saying “no” will become an increasingly untenable response.
Scott Budde '81 is the founder of Better Harvest Federal Credit Union and project director of the Sustainable Agriculture Credit Union Research Project. He previously worked as an equity analyst and portfolio manager at TIAA-CREF.