BY AVA BLUM-CARR ’21
The campaign to divest Mount Holyoke College from the fossil fuel industry is forging on, despite the Board of Trustees’ decision to vote against it this past April.
Founded in 2012, Mount Holyoke’s divestment campaign seeks to persuade the College to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry, which exist in the form of investments within Mount Holyoke’s financial portfolio. In 2014, the organization formally registered as the Climate Justice Coalition (CJC) and settled upon three official demands. The CJC’s goal is for Mount Holyoke College to freeze all further investments in fossil fuel companies, divest the portion of the endowment already invested in the fossil fuel industry over the next five years and reinvest this money in sustainable and ethical enterprises.
The Board of Trustees’ decision did not come as a surprise to the CJC, but it disappointed many of Mount Holyoke’s students and faculty. The primary argument that the Board of Trustees puts forward against divestment is the potential blow to financial aid. “The school says that if we were to lose money due to divestment, financial aid would be the first thing cut,” said Shannon Seigal ’19, a core organizer within CJC. “Our counter-argument is that portfolios that have divested have not shown a loss in returns.”
Alexi Arango, associate professor of physics, refutes the Board’s argument entirely. “I read the Board’s statement, and I counted seven outright falsehoods. One of them is the notion that divestment would impact the endowment and financial aid, which is not supported anywhere in their document. They make no effort to justify that,” said Arango.
Seigal ’19 described the college’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry as fundamentally at odds with Mount Holyoke’s mission as an institution.
“We are educating young people who are going out into the world in a few years, and the world they will go into is radically different than the world that I grew up in. The skills, information, and preparation you need for a society that’s dealing with ecological collapse are much different than before, but we’ve refused to revamp our education system,” said Arango, citing Mount Holyoke’s low percentage of courses that discuss the implications of climate change.
Arango believes that divestment is a crucial first step in a long process towards true sustainability. The reallocation of funds would take years, as would significant changes to the college’s curriculum and physical construction of an eco-friendly campus. According to Arango, the former will lead to the latter.
Seigal acknowledged that the CJC’s focus remains almost solely on the issue of divestment. This commitment hinges on the concept that increased education is the most valuable strategy for mobilizing the student body.
“We feel like we have a lot of passive support on campus. We’re hoping to be more open and obvious with the education we do this year,” said Seigal.
Last year the organization held multiple teach-ins, and more are planned for this semester. The CJC plans to host a teach-in called Endowment 101 on October 4. “Most people know what the endowment is, but they have no idea how it works. We’ll be talking about the difference between the school’s operating budget and its endowment, and how divestment plays into that,” said Seigal.
Arango acknowledged the difficulties that would come with the transition. He explained that it’s often hard to determine whether or not an investment in the college’s portfolio is linked to the fossil fuel industry, not to mention the fact that some of Mount Holyoke’s investments are years-long commitments that are impossible to instantly abandon.
“The power of divestment is much larger than just the individual dollars invested,” Arango said. “Nobody is asking the college to divest immediately, but instead to make a commitment.”
Both Seigal and Arango stressed the importance educating oneself and others about the realities of climate change.
Seigal agreed that the issue must be made personal. This year, the CJC hopes for more active participation of the student body.
“We don’t want people to be blindly showing up, we want them to actually know about the issue,” she said. “When you think about the injustices that fund our education, that’s when you get passionate. I’m benefiting a lot from my education, and I don’t want that to be at the cost of other people.”