Calling on the Board of Trustees to Divest

By Guest Contributor

Last Saturday morning, the seven of us gave a 45-minute presentation in front of the full Board of Trustees advocating for divestment of Middlebury’s endowment from the fossil fuels and weapons manufacturing industries. We spoke for the hundreds of students across campus who have expressed their support of divestment. In this column, we seek to sum up our argument, using direct quotes from our transcript.

Jeannie Bartlett:  We’re here today to talk about divesting Middlebury’s endowment holdings from fossil fuels and weapons manufacturing industries.  Divestment will include making a public commitment early this spring, freezing investments in those industries and being completely out by 2016, the same time we fulfill carbon neutrality.

Laura Berry: One of our major concerns is the presence of weapons-related violence in this world. From the stagnant rate of firearm murders in the U.S. and the mass tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Massacre and the Aurora theatre shooting, the horrifying presence of firearm related violence in the U.S. is more evident than ever.

Teddy Smyth: In the Copenhagen Accord, the world agreed: the highest “safe” temperature rise is two degrees Celsius. If we burn through all of our reserves, as currently projected, we will exceed the amount of carbon we can “safely” burn five times over. So we’re left with a choice: either we continue burning through our reserves and blow past the two-degree target, or we lock up a large portion of the carbon reserves worldwide.

Craig Thompson: According to Investure’s December 2012 review of our endowment, 3.6 percent of our portfolio is invested in fossil fuels and 0.6 percent is invested in weapons manufacturers. This is the part of our portfolio we believe that Middlebury should divest. Research by HSBC, the United Nations, Mercer, Aperio Group and McKinsey among others support the notion that the predicted “cost” of divestment is likely insignificant. In the Divestment Panel in McCullough last month, Mark Kritzman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, presented a largely theoretical paper he wrote titled “The Cost of Divestment.” Mr. Kritzman’s analysis does not mention risk or risk-adjusted returns and uses investment assumptions that are not applicable to our portfolio or, we believe, the Board’s decision.

Divestment also circumvents the significant political and environmental risks that these industries face in the upcoming years. Middlebury invests its endowment with an infinite horizon with respect to returns, and as a result the question of when anti-carbon emission legislation will occur, either in one year or in 10, does not change the fact that there could be significant impact on intermediate- and long-term profitability not currently priced into the market. Restrictions on using this carbon are almost inevitable if the planet as we know it is to survive.

Nathan Arnosti: Divestment from South Africa provides a clear legal precedent. A legal comment at the time noted that ‘the courts give wide discretion to trustee investment decisions.’ … The UNEP Finance Initiative reports in 2005 and 2009 confirms the legality of integrating non-financial considerations into investment decisions.

The College’s investment objectives explains that the endowment’s ‘earnings support the diverse programs and initiatives of the Middlebury College community in perpetuity.’ Isn’t it fair to consider that our earnings from investments in fossil fuels and weapons do not support the college’s initiatives?

Laura Berry: Middlebury has already placed social and environmental concerns at the forefront of its academics and campus operations. We ask that the Board vote to divest from fossil fuels and weapons manufacturers because the missions of these companies run directly counter to the Middlebury education.

Middlebury now has the opportunity to take its role as a social and environmental leader to the next level. Middlebury would be at the forefront of a national movement with over 256 active divestment campaigns on college campuses. We would be the first of our peer institutions to divest and would undoubtedly inspire other institutions in the United States to once again follow in our footsteps and consider divestment.

Kristina Johansson: Divestment from fossil fuels and weapons manufacturers will have a powerful impact, as it did in South Africa 25 years ago. Middlebury’s divestment, in conjunction with divestment at other institutions, can spark a shift in the public discourse on climate change and gun violence. We mean to reduce the political power of these industries in Washington, which has prevented meaningful legislation on climate change and gun violence over the past few decades. Widespread divestment will also signal to the government that academic institutions desire an economic and political environment that no longer coddles fossil fuel producers, but rather nurtures the development of clean, renewable energy.

Fernando Sandoval Jimenez: We are not an isolated community. We are not immune to the effects of climate change and weapons manufacturing. We are a global community, and we are proud of it. It only makes sense that we honor our responsibility to the members of this community.

We have shown that we care about the environment by putting our money forth to green this campus. It is now time to fully embrace our values, to put our ethics forth and to show that we care about ALL members of our global community. And we can do this by taking ownership over where our money goes, and what our money does in the world.

Jeannie Bartlett: The first step we propose is to choose a strategy.  Middlebury is in a somewhat unique situation because our endowment is managed by Investure, together with the endowments of 12 other institutions.  The first option, then, is for Investure to divest all the funds it manages … A second option is for only certain Investure clients to divest … A third option, of course, is for Middlebury to divest independently of Investure, and manage the endowment using an in-house manager or by forming a new consortium with like-minded institutions.

The second step is to make a public commitment to divestment. On March 4, students are “marching forth” to support divestment, and we hope that you can join us then with a positive announcement … We ask for a commitment by March 15. We realize the logistics of any of the strategies we’ve outlined will probably take time to implement.  The commitment should identify a strategy for divestment, set a timeline for implementation and dedicate paid time and energy into implementation.

By 2016, at the same time that we fulfill carbon neutrality, we hope Middlebury can announce that our portfolio is free of fossil fuel companies and arms manufacturers.

Finally, investing to advance Middlebury’s mission is an ongoing process. We should continually reflect on and improve the alignment of our investments with our values.

JEANNIE BARTLETT ’15 is from Leyden, Mass.
LAURA BERRY ’16 is from Nashville, Tenn.
TEDDY SMYTH ’15 is from Augusta, Ga.
CRAIG THOMPSON ’13.5 is from New York, N.Y.
NATHAN ARNOSTI ’13 is from Saint Paul, Minn.
KRISTINA JOHANSSON ’14 is from Stockholm, Sweden
FERNANDO SANDOVAL JIMENEZ ’15 is from Nochistlán de Mejía, Mexico

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