John Tull and Nicholas Gardner: Williams board squanders chance to address climate, divestiture

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> On a recent Saturday this month, Williams College held a Student/Board of Trustees forum on campus that was billed as an opportunity for trustees to listen to student concerns. Aiming to increase transparency and accountability of board decision-making, student climate activists presented their views on the college's reaction to the global warming crisis that every reputable scientist warns threatens our planet. As has been the case with others who have questioned the college's anemic stance, the students were roundly rebuffed

Since 2013, a growing number of students, faculty and alums have asked Williams' Board of Trustees to withdraw from its $2.3 billion endowment investments in companies that contribute significantly to the production and expansion of greenhouse gases, companies that in many instances have suppressed or misrepresented scientific evidence of the problem.

The students believe that Williams should use its unsurpassed prestige as one of the premier institutions of higher education in the nation to help draw national attention to the urgency of the problem. A commitment to move toward divest would follow the lead of Yale University, which began a affirmative process in April, 2016.

Unfortunately, the Board of Trustees, which has met in secret and with no public record of its discussion, has consistently refused to take more than modest action, all of it focused locally and none of it beyond its fence line. The trustee have committed to on campus investments in clean energy and signaled support for increased research. And as touted by the board's Chair, Michael Eisenson, agreed to make "anthropogenic [that is, human caused] climate change a campus-wide theme of inquiry." A campus-wide theme of inquiry sounds sadly like what educational institutions do when they want to avoid real engagement with an issue in favor of stimulating academic debate.

College leaders also sent a timid letter to their investment managers merely asking them to "consider carefully the impact of potential investments or investment strategies on greenhouse gas emissions." The letter pointedly did not direct them to take any real action nor address the college's current investment portfolio.

Hopes quickly dashed

Participants in the forum hoped that it might signal a new era of more open discussion with the board about critical issues. Any such hopes were quickly dashed when board member Andreas Halvorsen dramatically signaled the board's attitude, first launching into a diatribe and then marching out of the meeting. He announced that "in our view, that topic(divestment) is now closed. We spent an enormous amount of time listening to you. There are no new views on the topic and we can now move on to other important topics."

No new views on the topic? Views on the topic are shifting quickly as each month brings yet more evidence of the acceleration of climate change and the urgency of action. And the issue continues to rivet an increasing number of colleges and universities in the question of whether they can morally continue to invest their significant resources in an industry that contributes directly to the crisis and that resolutely misrepresents and suppresses science that demonstrates that contribution.

Williams College should be a leader in that discussion, not an intransigent bystander. Its standing nationally and internationally, its wealth (largest endowment on a per capita student basis), and its espousal of scientific integrity and rational discourse might lead one to believe that it would be out front in the battle against climate change. It is not.

Rebuffed, yet again by Williams' Board of Trustees, student, faculty and alumni advocates for divestment are resolute in their intent to bring about change in the college's investment policy. Alumni for their part are moving forward with a strategy to get a commitment from fellow alumni to withhold donations from the college until there is palpable movement toward divestment. They are also looking at potential conflicts of interest among board members who may be acting to protect their own financial interests because of their substantial holdings in oil and gas investments.

John A. Tull, a member of the Williams College class of'65, lives in Nederland, Colorado. Nicholas Gardner is a member of the Williams class of '19.


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