Williams College students push for divestment in coal companies

Sam Lewis, left, one of the organizers of the student environmental advocates Thursday Night Group, and Max Heninger, co-president of the College Council, are leading the charge on divesting from coal companies at Williams College.

Sunday May 5, 2013

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Williams College students have joined more than 300 colleges and 100 cities and states in a national campaign by asking the school's endowment fund to divest from any coal producing companies.

According to Sam Lewis, a sophomore at Williams and one of the organizers of student environmental advocates Thursday Night Group (TNG), students have been tracking the divestment campaign since its beginnings in 2012.

The campaign to divest from coal production is gathering momentum: There are divestment campaigns at 305 colleges, including Brown University, Syracuse University, Harvard University, and the University of California San Diego.

More that 100 cities and states are the setting for still more divestment campaigns: Already 10 cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have decided to withdraw any investments in fossil fuel production. The campaign has also spread to Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Britain.

In October, TNG kicked off the divestment campaign with a rally, and have since collected more than 200 student signatures and composed a resolution requesting that the college refrain from investing in any coal-producing companies.

The student governing organization, College Council, passed the resolution with an overwhelming majority last week.

"Part of the College Council's mission is to be a voice for the student body," noted Max Heninger, a junior at the school and co-president of the College Council. "And student support here for the divest movement is certainly significant enough for the College Council to support it."

"We feel that to continue to be investing in something that will be detrimental to its students and to students around the globe is not in line with the college's mission," Lewis said.

"When you have groups like TNG coming forward with an issue that represents the heart and soul of this school, it only serves to raise awareness and gain further support," Heninger said. "Colleges and universities are a voice for a generation that is going to have to deal with the effects of climate change."

The resolution asks the college to refrain from investing in coal-producing companies from a fund that represents 3 percent of the overall endowment. This 3 percent fund is directly invested by the college.

According to James Kolesar, spokesman for Williams College, that fund has no current investments in coal production. The council's resolution has been passed on to the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibilities. This committee has two faculty, two students, two staff members and two alumni that make investment suggestions to the Board of Trustees' Finance Committee, which makes the final investment decisions.

Kolesar said the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibilities is considering the resolution and had not yet made any decision.

The other 97 percent of the school's $1.8 billion endowment is handled by account managers of corporate investment firms, which are logistically hampered from making individual investment strategies for individual funds.

TNG is also seeking a way to influence those investing decisions, Lewis noted.

"We're making a moral and financial stand against companies that profit by producing coal," Lewis said.

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