WILLIAMSTOWN >> Pressure is mounting on Williams College to scrub from its financial portfolio all financial ties to the top contributors to climate change.
The college president and board of trustees on Wednesday were presented with a letter, signed by 180 of the school's faculty and 53 staff members, urging the college to divest its endowment fund from the top 200 fossil fuel producers.
"This level of faculty and staff support for fossil fuel divestment shows the great momentum behind the movement," said Katie McChesney, a U.S. Campus Divestment Organizer for the global grassroots climate organization 350.org. "We now hear faculty, staff, students, and alumni speaking with one voice, and the faculty support is especially impressive. This is 52 percent of Williams College's total faculty stating that their college needs to stop investing in the world's most climate-damaging industry."
In December, the Williams Endowment Initiative and Divest Williams submitted a 15-page proposal to the college advisory committee. It was signed by more than 500 students, faculty and alumni. Wednesday's letter from faculty and staff endorses that effort.
"We, the undersigned faculty and staff, have been heartened in the last months to witness an energetic student and alumni movement to divest our college holdings from the 200 largest publicly traded companies in the fossil fuel industry," the letter reads. "Through a series of thoughtful and enlightening debates and conversations since last year, we have come to believe wholeheartedly in the efficacy, necessity and urgency of this demand. We would like to offer our support to the student and alumni-led campaigns, as well as our own reasons for supporting divestment."
James Kolesar, Williams vice president of public affairs, said last month that in order to establish a policy of divestment, a proposal would needs to be submitted to the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which is made up of two faculty members, two students, two staff members and two alumni.
Kolesar said at the time the committee "intends to take up this broader matter," though he did not provide a timeline. And he said college President Adam Falk felt it would be inappropriate to comment on matters of establishing college policy.
Shanti Singham, a history and Africana Studies professor at the college, noted the broad support the effort has received from the faculty.
"When students pushed us to join the movement, we weren't sure how faculty and staff would respond," she said. "But they have really studied the issue and come to realize that divestment can help reshape the public conversation about climate change and energy policy."
The letter notes that the effects of climate change have already been "catastrophic."
"We are obligated to eschew the traditional risk-averseness of venerable institutions and act instead as leaders in the public sphere," the letter continues. "In light of existing data, it is difficult to credit the arguments that we have heard against divestment, particularly those that pessimistically imagine a more certain financial outcome of divestment than can be predicted for any of our investments. Moreover, if we use accounting systems that include the externalities of damages caused to the planet and its economic systems, investments in fossil fuel companies are poor choices."
The letter dismisses arguments against divestment, noting the economic cost of ignoring climate change.
"Our endowment managers ought to exercise not just caution, but also agility, vision, and a keen sense of the future; it is indisputable that climate change itself, not just climate policy, will affect the economy," the letter continues. "The US National Climate Assessment, the UN IPCC reports, and the Stern Review all detail significant economic changes generated by climate change, and a responsibly invested endowment will not only respond to, but also anticipate these changes. What's more, shifting our investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy will enable new technologies that will be essential to our energy future."
As of June 30, 2014, the Williams College endowment was valued at $2.3 billion. Of that money, 3.3 percent is directly invested by the college, or about $73 million. Roughly 12 percent of that is invested in energy-related companies. The larger portion of the endowment, 96.7 percent, is handled by a number of investment management firms.
"During my 45 years at Williams I have been continually impressed by the way the college has managed its resources to enable our educational mission," said Hank Art, professor of biology, who helped coordinate the letter. "I've also seen that the college can respond positively to societal needs, taking principled stands for social justice, human rights, and the environment. It is my hope, and that of significant numbers in the Williams community, that the president and trustees will seize this opportunity to take action to address the greatest threat to the sustainability of our planet that we have faced in our lifetimes."
Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.