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Divestment 101

By Guest Contributor

What is this “divestment”?

To those of you new to Middlebury or just returning from abroad, I wish to say welcome and keep an eye out for us.  The issue of divestment from fossil fuels and arms manufacturing has been a hot topic for the past year, and it will continue to be.  Let me get you up to speed.

For years the Socially Responsible Investing Club has advocated for investing the college’s endowment with concern for its implications beyond financial returns.  Those implications generally concern environmental, social, or corporate governance issues (ESG), and outcomes can be pursued through positive investment, community investment, shareholder engagement, and divestment.  In the spring of 2012, the SRI club gathered over 1,000 student signatures in support of a more socially responsible endowment.

Last fall, Middlebury students joined a growing movement of college students asking their administrations to divest from fossil fuels and arms manufacturing.  A diverse range of students pursued divestment using different tactics including, meeting with administrators, coordinating with other colleges, researching, and promoting discussion and awareness on our own campus.  One group of students wrote a fake press release apparently from the college advertising its recent divestment from fossil fuels and arms in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit.  That tactic made divestment an even more visible and political issue, as the campus debated not only the goals but also the tactics of divestment advocates.

In December, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz committed to hosting three discussion panels on divestment. He also announced that 3.6 percent of our endowment is invested in fossil fuels, and 0.6 percent in weapons manufacturers.  In contrast, the college has 0.5 percent of our endowment in a dedicated Sustainable Investments Initiative.

In January the administration held its first panel on the endowment, Bill McKibben delivered his “Do The Math” event that had toured the country in the fall, and an SGA survey reported that 61 percent of Middlebury students supported divestment.  At the winter meeting of the Middlebury College Board of Trustees, seven students presented to the full Board for an hour, ending with a reiteration of the previous request to commit to divestment by March 15 of that year.  The commitment would be to the pursuit of divestment, with the understanding that a longer timeline would be necessary to accomplish that goal.

In March, more than 100 students rallied outside Old Chapel, and a group of about 20 crowded the Treasurer’s office to hear the announcement that the College would not commit to divestment at that time.  Later that spring the administration hosted a student panel on divestment, though panelists in support of divestment were underrepresented compared to the proportion of the general student body.

At the May Board of Trustees meeting, which coincided with finals week, the Trustees discussed divestment at length while students outside, on the advice from one supportive trustee, rallied as noisily as possible.  As Trustees exited the meeting supporters asked what they had decided and were disappointed to learn they had still not made a commitment to divestment.

In the final days of the school year, a small group of students comprising the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investment had their final meeting with the Treasurer and learned of some exciting advances in responsible investing that the Trustees had decided to pursue in lieu of divesting at the moment.  They included a dedicated pursuit of transparency and use of ESG criteria in the management of our endowment; heightened investment in on-campus ESG, and a greater allocation to the Sustainable Investments Initiative fraction of the endowment.  A few weeks ago, the President communicated these initiatives to the college community, but without concrete numbers or a timeline for implementation.  If these proposals are implemented on the scale alluded to by the Treasurer and in a timely manner, they could mark huge progress on the ethics of Middlebury’s endowment.

The President’s recent statement also included the three questions that are still preventing the Trustees from voting to divest.  Last week, students responded with their own statement reiterating the urgency of divestment and offering answers to the President’s lingering questions.

As someone who has worked for SRI and divestment since my second semester at Middlebury, I see those questions as the ones that students and other organizers have been discussing and answering throughout the course of the past year.

The President’s questions make me wonder what the administration was researching last year if they feel those questions remain so completely unanswered.  That said, they are certainly nuanced issues that will always benefit from further contemplation and research.  I intend to continue gathering answers to these questions, and encouraging the administration and Trustees to find answers as well.  Finally, I hope the administration will realize that great leaders have to take action without knowing all the answers.

For more information, including videos and transcripts of the events and letters referenced, please visit go/divestmidd (student-run) or go/endowment (admin-run), or contact [email protected]

Jeannie Bartlett ’15 is from Leyton, Mass.

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