Trustees will consider divestment

BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE '19

Five members of the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition presented to the Board of Trustees meeting on Sept. 28 to discuss the college’s divestment from fossil fuels.

One of few student orgs aside from SGA to meet with the Board of Trustees, the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition has been campaigning for divestment from fossil fuels since its founding in Spring 2012.

Divestment, the opposite of investment, is the process of removing stocks, bonds and investment funds from a particular industry. In the case of Mount Holyoke, the Climate Justice Coalition hopes to influence the college to divest from the fossil fuel industry. According to the coalition, the school invests two to three percent of its investments in fossil fuel producing industries or firms.

“We want to divest because fossil fuels are the primary drivers of climate change and the college has a responsibility to mitigate climate change,” said Shannon Seigal ’19, an organizer from the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition.

The group’s primary mission is to place an immediate freeze on all of the college’s investments, divest within five years from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies and then re-invest that money into more sustainable firms and industries, like IT and engineering.

By meeting and engaging with various members of the Mount Holyoke community, like shareholders of the college, board members, administrators, faculty and students, the group has been able to share their objectives across the campus. Their activity on campus has ranged from holding rallies, organizing teach-ins, holding a referendum and faculty vote, having an alumni petition and sponsoring trainings on student organizing.

Few student orgs get the chance to meet with the Board of Trustees, however, as the group only meets three times a year.

That’s why the Climate Justice Coalition had a very specific goal going into the meeting, according to Julia Worcester ’17, a student divestment organizer.

“Our goal going into the meeting was to inform the board on our perspective on divestment and act as a catalyst for a vote on divestment [from] fossil fuel at Mount Holyoke,” Worcester said.

With this in mind, the five student representatives had 10 minutes to present to President Stephens and the Board of Trustees. The group provided their audience with background information on the divestment movement and the history of its campaign at Mount Holyoke.

Organizers shared the story of the beginning of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which began with a group of Swarthmore students who witnessed a mountain top removal, in which a mountain top was removed to extract fossil fuel, in the Appalachian Mountains. Swarthmore’s coalition asked residents of the area what they could do to help the community moving forward, and they eventually came up with fossil fuel divestment. The coalition told the trustees that campaigns for divestment exist at 400 colleges and universities across the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, India and other countries. Students at each college in the Five College system are currently campaigning or have campaigned successfully for divestment. So far, Hampshire and UMass have both divested from fossil fuels.

“Our main message was that if Mount Holyoke wants to be a leader in climate change, it must divest,” said Seigal.

The representatives felt very optimistic after the meeting. Prior to this meeting, the group had only met with individual board members, committees and members of Cambridge Associates (the investment firm that manages Mount Holyoke’s endowment), but never the entire board.

“The meeting was very positive,” said Worcester. “It was a great opportunity to get our message across to the entire board and at the same time provide them with new perspectives on divestment.”

After their presentation, the representatives handed out orange squares to each of the board members, the symbol of fossil fuel divestment, and were promptly escorted out.

The group hopes that their meeting will influence when the decision to divest will be made. The board of trustees has final decision-making power about divestment, so the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition wanted to make sure that they spoke to the board before the board makes any decision. The board, however, has many factors to consider when making the decision with regard to fiscal matters.

The student org interpreted President Stephens’ view of divestment as agreeing with divestment on a moral level, but not feeling totally comfortable with the financial implications of divesting.

“Financially, there are some complications around divestment because the Mount Holyoke endowments used to be directly invested, but now they are pooled together and it’s very difficult to tell which endowment is receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry,” Worcester explained.

At the end of the day, the board must abide by the bylaws of the college, meaning that they are obliged not to make a decision that would be bad for the college fiscally.

The Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition expects the board of trustees to vote on fossil fuel divestment by the end of this academic year. 

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