BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE ’19
On the evening of Thursday, April 13, the Mount Holyoke board of trustees announced that they voted unanimously against divestment from publicly traded fossil fuel holdings in the College’s endowment.
Divestment, the opposite of investment, is the process of removing stocks, bonds and investment funds from a particular industry.
According to the email, the decision against divestment was made on the grounds that the board of trustees needed to protect Mount Holyoke College’s endowment, which funds 26 percent of the annual operating budget. After taking into consideration the recommendations from faculty, members of the Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition and the Student Government Association, the board of trustees explained that by divesting, the College’s endowment would be significantly weakened.
“Given the College’s limited financial exposure to fossil fuels, divestment would sacrifice the strength and stability of our endowment without, we believe, having the desired impact on the fossil fuel industry,” the email stated. “The move also would likely reduce the investment returns on the endowment and therefore distributions to the College. Putting our endowment at risk means putting our mission at risk.”
The email also listed the many facilities and services the endowment makes possible, including financial aid and college operations.
Shannon Gurek, the vice president of finance and administration and the treasurer of the College, elaborated on the potential negative impact of divestment on student financial aid.
“We would expect to see some reduction in our endowment’s returns if we were to reinvest the proceeds in less effective asset managers who are open to new investments,” she said. “Further, we would need to find high-performing managers of well-diversified portfolios that do not invest in fossil fuels, which further narrows our options. The Investment Committee firmly believes that our returns would drop, and thus our distributions to the College would drop as well.”
Gurek also noted that if the worth of the College’s endowment drops significantly, the College’s ability to provide Mount Holyoke students with financial aid would be put at risk.
The board of trustees’ email also attempted to address student concerns about climate change.
“The Mount Holyoke board of trustees strongly believes that climate change is real,” the statement read. “It is one of the defining issues of our lifetime. Climate change is threatening people and ecosystems around the globe.”
The statement said that Mount Holyoke is committed to the fight against climate change and that the College has a responsibility to both local and global environmental sustainability. The email stated that Mount Holyoke is investing in clean and renewable energy sources, as well as increasing its investment in sustainability through such means as the Mount Holyoke Sustainability Task Force, the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and the establishment of a Green Revolving Fund to implement clean energy on campus.
The board of trustees first announced their decision in a meeting on afternoon of April 13 with members of the MHCJC, the Student Government Association, the eans of the college, faculty Ad Hoc Committee on Divestment and other faculty.
The MHCJC is a student organization on campus that has been actively involved in the discussion on divestment. The group strives to redirect Mount Holyoke’s investments away from the fossil fuel industry in order to build a sustainable future by upholding a vision of purposeful engagement in the world. Their ask is to divest from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies and reinvest in more ethical industries over a five year period. “We are willing and open to negotiating that ask with the board of trustees in a way that best suits Mount Holyoke.”
Shannon Seigal ’19, a CJC organizer, was present at the meeting in which the board announced their decision to vote against divestment. “We were emailed at about 10:00 a.m. on April 13 by Lenore Reilly asking us to come to a meeting to discuss an important matter at 4:00 p.m. that day,” explained Seigal. “The meeting was led by [acting] president Stephens and we were told that the board had voted no to divestment sometime prior to that meeting. Given our work on the subject they wanted to tell us before the memo went out to the whole community. The memo came out while we were sitting in the meeting.”
Seigal said that the CJC members were glad they had been invited to attend the meeting. “CJC sees a stark difference in our dynamics with President Pasquerella and [acting] president Stephens. [Acting] president Stephens definitely seems to have more of a dialogue with us and does make more of a point to recognize the work that we’ve done.”
The group, however, was displeased that they had been told about the meeting last minute and that they were not told about the topic of the meeting.
“We were all just rounded up and brought into this room and then were told about the vote,” said Seigal. “We were in a controlled space where the administration knew where we were when we received this info. Again, it was nice that they told us ahead of time but they told us so close to the time that the information was released to the whole student body that at the end of the day it didn’t make much of a difference.”
In a recent statement, the board of trustees explained their recusal process for the vote on divestment. The statement explained that members of the board of trustees are bound by a conflict of interest policy, meaning that whenever there is a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest, the trustee will recuse him or herself from the vote.
“To be very clear, recusing oneself means not participating in the discussions or the vote on an issue. Given the appearance of a conflict of interest on the question of divestment, several trustees did recuse themselves” said the statement.
Seigal does not believe that this recusal process was abided. Members of CJC were told that several board members recused themselves from the vote, and were also told that the recusal meant that the recused parties were not a part of the discussion surrounding the vote.
Seigal explained, however, that CJC was told by the board of trustees that they had been discussing divestment for years and thus she finds it hard to believe that the board members who recused themselves were not a part of any of those discussions on divestment over the years.
“I know that statement is not true at all because when we presented on divestment, presumably the entire board was there and listened and subsequently discussed it after we left. So even though those who recused themselves likely were not a part of the vote or whatever discussion led up to it on that immediate day, those board members who recused themselves were certainly a part of the other conversations that led up to it” said Seigal.
One of these board members with a potential conflict of interest is the chair of the board of trustees, Barbara Baumann. ’77 According to Bloomberg, Baumann has worked at the Cross Creek Energy Corporation, and therefore would have had to recuse herself from the vote.
“All of the conversations and all of the dialogue that we as CJC have had with the board have had to go through the chair of the board, who supposedly would have recused herself,” said Seigal. “I think that there’s a conflict in what we were being told about the context of who took part in that vote and who didn’t, the discussions around it and what actually happened. I believe that those who recused themselves, potentially on both sides, certainly had a say and an influence over the vote even if they were not present.”
The CJC planned a Day of Action event for Friday, April 14, the day after the decision against divestment was announced. The event took place in the courtyard outside of Mary Lyon Hall from 1:00-2:00 p.m..
CJC stated that they had been told by the board of trustees that they would be voting on divestment within the month of April.
“We intentionally planned the action to be around the time of the vote, and because of the information that we had prior, we planned our rhetoric of the day of action as a way to escalate the campaign to push the board to vote and to vote yes, although we did assume they would be voting no,” said Seigal.
After CJC found out that the board had voted against divestment, they shifted their rhetoric from pushing the board to vote on divestment to pushing the board to re-vote on divestment
“Instead of pushing the board to vote, which they already did, we are pushing them to essentially re-vote, not this May but soon,” said Seigal. “We want them to re-vote because this decision is completely in conflict with the almost unanimous wishes of the student body and the faculty.”
Seigal is referencing the fact that the Mount Holyoke faculty voted in favor of divestment last spring and that SGA voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment in March.
CJC assumed that the board would be voting no on divestment, regardless of their action. They had initially hoped that the action would potentially sway some board members to vote yes on divestment, but CJC assumed the Board would overall vote no. According to Seigal however, CJC sees this vote as a step in the right direction.
“At this point in our campaign, since it has been fought for so long, a vote against divestment is better than no vote at all because it allows us to escalate the campaign more since the board has officially made a stance that is in conflict with the student body and the faculty,” said Seigal.
The Day of Action included speeches from Mount Holyoke students involved with CJC and a speech from professor of physics Alexi Arango. Professor Arango, who has provided advice and expertise to CJC, explained why he was in attendance at Friday’s event.
“I see divestment as an important, easy first step toward starting to change the way we behave and the way we think about climate change,” Arango said.
Arango disputed the board of trustees’ argument that divestment would cost Mount Holyoke a vast amount of its endowment.
“The truth about divestment is that it doesn’t cost Mount Holyoke anything, despite what you’ll hear from the college,” Arango said. “It’s more of a political decision than an economic decision. If we can’t make a simple choice like that, how are we going to do the difficult work of rebuilding our College and converting to solar power and making our buildings efficient, all of which would be expensive and would take a lot of difficult work and actual difficult decisions?”
The event culminated with a staged die-in. Participants laid down on the cobblestone ground of the courtyard and organizers traced their bodies with chalk in order to signify their belief that Mount Holyoke’s decision to continue investing in the fossil fuel industry will have lethal effects on human life as a result of its contribution to climate change.
Kaila Cantens ’17 attended the protest and participated in the die-in. “I’m here because people don’t quite understand that climate change isn’t about hippies wanting to save trees,” said Cantens. “It’s about people wanting to save people.”
“I love the fact that the chalk will be visible for all to see,” said acting president Stephens, referring to the chalk outlines left behind after the die-in.
Stephens was impressed with the protestors’ effort to make their voices heard. “Their work has certainly had an impact,” said Stephens. “They’ve gotten the board to vote on divestment and that shows their impact.”