Students Talk Divestment

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Teddy Smyth '15 speaks during the College's second panel on divestment. (Jessica Munyon)

 

On Sunday, April 28, the discussion of the divestment of the College’s endowment from fossil fuel industries continued with a student-only panel, featuring three students in favor of the movement with four students whose opinions ranged from strong opposition to measured skepticism.

The panel took place in Dana Auditorium, which was about half-full of community members, a stark contrast with the almost 300 attendees who filled the McCullough Social Space for the College’s first panel on divestment. The first panel on January 22 featured professionals in investment, finances and the divestment movement with opinions ranging from support to opposition of divesting the current 3.6 percent of the College’s $950 million endowment invested in fossil fuel companies.

The student panel on Sunday featured former Governor of Vermont Jim Douglas ’72 as the moderator and students Jeannie Bartlett ’15, Ben Wiggins ’14, Janet Bering ’13, Ryan Kim ’14, Zach Drennen ’13.5, Michael Patterson ’13 and Teddy Smyth ’15 as the panel participants. The panel lasted for over two hours.

Vice President for Finance and Treasurer’s Office Patrick Norton began the evening with opening remarks noting that the “management of the endowment has grown increasingly complex” and stating that his hope for the panel was to have a “meaningful discussion” that would “give us an opportunity to hear diverse perspectives and a broad range of opinions.”

Bartlett, co-president of the Socially Responsible Investment Club (SRI) and a member of the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investment, began the panel arguing for divestment, focusing mainly on the negative effects of climate change on the environment and how she believes divestment will help push a movement toward a healthier planet. She emphasized that as a college that preaches a green agenda, divestment falls in line with the College’s proposed eco-friendly practices.

“I think divesting from fossil fuels will align the school’s investments and practices with   [its] mission,” said Bartlett.

“It’s imperative for our health and prosperity both now and in the future,” she concluded.

Smyth agreed with Bartlett’s arguments, saying that it is “morally wrong for us to profit from the destruction of our planet.”

Smyth cited strong student support for divestment, mentioning the results of this year’s Student Government Association (SGA) survey, which found that over 60 percent of the student body supports divestment and 24 percent are opposed to it.

“At this point, the question isn’t whether or not we’re going to divest, but when.” he said.

Bering, a self-described “environmental studies major who is skeptical of divestment as a tool for change” conceded that divestment “is the morally right thing to do,” but she questioned if divestment is addressing climate change in an effective way.

“It does not get people talking about and aware of the real issue,” she said.  “They’re mostly talking about financial risk, not climate change. Divestment is a distraction.”

Bering, a Texas native, also argued that divestment is not a “national movement,” pointing out that one-third of the over-300 colleges that are currently a part of the movement are in California, New York or New England, and two-thirds would consider themselves on the west or east coast.

“We need a better movement,” added Bering, “and I think Middlebury is the perfect place to start doing that.”

Wiggins and Patterson also argued against divestment, but focused on the idea that the risk to the College’s endowment is too great to justify divesting from fossil fuels.

Wiggins expressed his belief that, while he agrees that “we need to pursue alternative forms of energy,” the endowment is too essential to the College’s running effectively to endanger its investment returns through divestment.

“I think the goals of the endowment are more important than divesting from fossil fuel,” Wiggins added, “and I think we need to wait until we can be assured that divesting will not have a significant impact on the size of the endowment.”

Echoing an earlier reference from Wiggins, Patterson also highlighted the importance of the endowment for funding financial aid, as he noted that for the 2012 – 2013 academic year, 42 percent of students are on financial aid with an average Middlebury grant of $36,277 per student.

In addition, Wiggins cited the complications that would come with having to divest. He stated that as the College is a part of a consortium under Investure — the firm that manages the College’s endowment — divesting from fossil fuels would require that the College either part ways with Investure or convince all of the other colleges and foundations in the consortium that they must divest as well.

Kim, a member of the Student Investment Committee, a student organization that invests about $355,000 of the endowment in stocks, also used economic reasoning based on his involvement and knowledge of the endowment’s investments to argue against divestment, which he feels is not currently a viable option.

“The energy sector has been doing exceedingly well,” said Kim, stating that his greatest concern for divestment is “risk and return.”

However, he did say that under certain circumstances, he would support divestment.

“If we can find mathematical proof that we wouldn’t incur undue costs in leaving Investure, then yes, I’m totally for [divestment].”

Drennen took a different angle in his support of divestment. While he said divestment was important for “the purpose of symbolism and the purpose of good investment practices,” he called for divestment from coal industries as an attainable first step.

“Not all fuels are created equal,” he said. “Coal has twice as much carbon per unit of energy as natural gas. I think it’s important to restrict the scope to something that I think can feasibly happen.”

After students on the panel gave their opening statements, they were allowed the opportunity to respond to and question each other. Then the audience was invited to ask questions of the panelists.

A number of audience members took this time to verbalize their own opinions on the divestment movement. In the majority of cases, these comments only weakly sought feedback from the panelists. All of the audience members who spoke seemed to be in support of divestment.

After the panel, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz expressed his approval of the proceedings of the panel.

“It was very good. I thought that it did provide a good representation of points of view and that was helpful.”

The panel was videotaped, a copy of which will be sent to members of the Board of Trustees, giving them the opportunity to watch the panel before their meetings from May 9 – 11, during which they will discuss divestment.

Liebowitz did not outline any specific outcome he thought would emerge from the meetings.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It all hinges on the Investment Committee’s presentation first and then our discussion [of divestment] on Saturday [May 11].”