Williams College trustees urged to divest endowment from fossil fuel-producing companies

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> A number of students, faculty and alumni at Williams College have taken up the campaign to convince the college trustees to divest its endowment funds from the top 200 fossil fuel-producing companies.

At the same time, Williams is among a number of colleges targeted by an independent effort that encourages donors to funnel gifts through a special fund that would force the institutions to divest in order to collect the donations.

In the local effort, the group Divest Williams has submitted a 15-page proposal written by two alumni, Daniel Shearer '04 and Brian Burke '02. So far, 500 students, alumni, faculty and staff have signed a petition supporting it.

Calling climate change "the most urgent and complex issue that humankind has ever faced," the proposal states that meaningful action to curtail the production of carbon dioxide has been absent.

"In short, progress is elusive, pessimism is high, and the sense of civic responsibility has been hollowed out," the proposal asserts.

According to Williams freshman Erica Chang, one of the organizers of the campaign, a referendum asking that the school divest its funds from the top 200 fossil fuel producers, such as Exxon/Mobil and Coal India, will be on the student election ballot in February.

"It's almost hypocritical that [the college] can push for renewable energy and refuse divestment," said Tara Miller, a Williams senior and organizer of the campaign. "We need to be doing everything possible or we're going to destroy this planet."

According to James Kolesar, Williams vice president of public affairs, in order to establish a policy of divestment, a proposal 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.

He said college President Adam Falk wouldn't comment on the effort because it would be inappropriate given the process of establishing college policy.

The advisory committee "was formed to explore issues such as this, discuss them with the campus broadly, and make recommendations about them to the Finance Committee of the board of trustees," Kolesar said. Due to this process, he said, "it would be inappropriate for the president to pre-empt the ACSR process by pronouncing on the matter beforehand."

He noted that the committee considered recommending a divestment from coal stocks in the past, "but the college's endowment didn't contain any and the committee didn't reach a majority regarding a recommendation."

"The ACSR intends to take up this broader matter, but I don't know on what timetable," Kolesar said. "Typically, however, they would meet more than once about an issue before deciding whether to make a recommendation to the Finance Committee of the board."

He noted that as of June 30, 2014, the 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 investment management firms.

At the same time, the push is on at Williams to get graduating seniors to donate to the Multi-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund, rather than the college endowment fund, which is the tradition.

"This is just one of many things in the divestment movement that is picking up momentum," said Sarah Vukelich, Williams senior and the local organizer of the Divestment Fund.

The fund allows donors to 15 colleges, including Williams, to donate into a fund that will only go to the college if it agrees by the end of 2017 to freeze new investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest from fossil fuel corporations within five years.

At the end of 2017, the money donated for any school that has not signed on would be divided among the schools that did, Vukelich said. The list of 15 schools includes Williams, Boston College, Brandeis University, MIT, Wellesley College and Syracuse University.

The year 2017 was chosen because the International Energy Agency established in 2011 that 2017 was the cutoff for building any new fossil fuel infrastructure to avoid catastrophic climate change, Vukelich said.

She said the fund, which was established a few weeks ago, hasn't garnered much attention or significant donations yet, but she believed as more people become aware of it, more will happen. Already, other schools are being added to the list.

A wide ranging number of colleges already have divested from oil and coal companies, including Stanford University in California, Green Mountain College in Vermont, and Hampshire College in Massachusetts. A number of municipalities have also done so, including Seattle, San Francisco and Provincetown.

Acknowledging that Williams College has been an environmental leader — the college has made significant efforts to reduce consumption of energy and to capitalize on renewable sources of energy — the first proposal calls for the college to also follow a new path.

"While the action of divestment involves finances, this is far more than a financial decision," the proposal reads. "Rather, this is a policy decision, a statement of the college's stance regarding the most significant challenge of our time and of the college's willingness to assume the responsibilities of leadership."

The proposal presents the case using conclusions about the effects on the climate as reported by the scientific community, but also the sociological and political effects of actions by the fossil fuel production industry.

"Investing in businesses that disrupt the global climate, cause negative social and ecological effects, spread distrust of legitimate science and undermine democratic political processes, contradicts the mission and purposes of the college, as defined by this board of trustees on April 14, 2007," the proposal states.

A similar proposal in 2013 was not passed on to the trustees by the advisory committee.

The next meeting of the committee is Jan. 15.

"We trust that the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, the Office of the President, and the board of trustees will thoroughly consider this proposal," it states. "As this is an urgent matter, however, we request that the board make a decision about divestment at your April meeting."

Senior Tara Miller said that divesting would be a good thing for the college, and could result in better public image, more donations and more applicants.

And if this effort fails, she added, "this is multi-generational thing. It will keep coming up."

Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.

350.org has named Feb. 13-14 a "global day of action" to demand schools, municipalities, retirement funds and others to divest from fossil fuel producing companies.

Schools where students, alumni and others can participate in the Multi-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund:

Boston College

Brandeis University

Dartmouth College

Georgetown University

James Madison University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Northeastern University

Reed College

Stanford University

Syracuse University

Tufts University

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

University of Mary Washington University of Pennsylvania

Wellesley College

Williams College


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