Board of trustees confronted with apartheid past

BY ABBY BAKER '19

Evidence from the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition suggests that after briefly divesting from companies that did business with apartheid South Africa in 1991 as the result of student activism, Mount Holyoke may have subsequently and discretely reinvested.

MHCJC has been working to convince the College to divest from fossil fuels since the launch of MHC Divest in November 2012. According to the MHCJC website, 2 percent of the College’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies. One of the Coalition’s goals is that the school divest this percentage and reinvest, as the website states, “into environmentally and socially responsible enterprises.”

The board of trustees met this past Thursday, Feb. 23. In a statement issued on the MHCJC website, titled “Mount Holyoke’s Convenient Conviction — A History of Divestment Decisions,” the organization wrote that the board would not reveal to students whether fossil fuel divestment would be discussed at the meeting. The group then wrote, “This lack of transparency is nothing new to our campaign or the student body at large.”

On April 6, 2015, five members of the Climate Justice Coalition met with then-President Lynn Pasquerella ’80, as well as members of the board’s investment committee and Cambridge Associates, a group that manages Mount Holyoke’s endowment. According to “Mount Holyoke’s Convenient Conviction,” members of the investment committee revealed to the five students that the College has reinvested in South African apartheid since 1991 due to the financial repercussions of the withdrawal. The college had initially divested on moral grounds as a result of student activism.

MHCJC also writes, “To our knowledge, the board made the choice to re-invest without consulting or informing the many factions of the Mount Holyoke community who fought for divestment in the first place. Ultimately, the decision occurred after a period of six years — after the student activists who fought for divestment graduated.”

The accusation that Mount Holyoke reinvested in South African apartheid after an initial divestment cannot be verified, as official meeting records for the board of trustees are sealed until 50 years after their occurrence.

Member of the Climate Justice Coalition Mahima Poreddy ’18 said of the accusations, “I hope that people understand that, if true, the reinvestment was disrespecting the work of student activists who stood up against the oppression of black people in South Africa. We must demand that the administration work to make the college support us wholly and openly.”

Raven Geiger ’17, also a member of the MHCJC and one of the students in attendance at the meeting in April 2015 said, “This issue of the administration not being transparent and not respecting the values, wants and needs of its students — especially students of color, especially black students — is paramount and affects a wide variety of issues on campus. We need to band together, all of the social justice causes on campus, and  fight for a more trans- parent Mount Holyoke, so we can at least know more accurately when MHC is or is not doing what we want, and thus can better hold MHC accountable.” A letter from Vincent A. Ferraro, Professor Emeritus of politics, addressed to his colleagues, asserted his own pro-divestment opinions, noting that the debate “raises important issues concerning the financial future of the College, its ability to assure adequate financial resources to its fundamental mission, and its ability to provide financial aid to those who otherwise would not be able to attend.”

However, he concludes, “Fiduciary responsibility does not preclude ethical choices.” On the matter of the College’s supposed reinvestment in South African apartheid, Ferraro wrote, “If true, that act of duplicity is an outrage.”

He also added, “As important as this issue is, it does not warrant the abdication of our complete and profound commitment to each other and our love for the College.” Contention over divestment has become prevalent on numerous college campuses, as student groups across the country advocate for their respective institutions to divest from the pro table fossil fuel industry due to environmental concerns. In November 2014, Fossil Free American University staged a protest four days before a board of trustees vote on whether to divest their endowment from fossil fuels (the board voted not to divest). According to the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University students occupied the school’s Low Library on April 22, 2016, while approximately 100 other students camped out outside the library for a night in solidarity.

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