Endowment Structure Changing

By Viviana Altamirano

President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz updated the College on the development of Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) progress outlined in a mass email sent Sept. 23.

The development of stronger ESG principles for the investment portfolio, the creation of ESG guidelines to help monitor operations on campus and the pledge to increase the amount of the endowment directed toward ESG investments, including those focused on clean energy, green building projects, and other efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and benefit the environment were the steps outlined followed by the actions taken.

Jeannie Bartlett ’15, an advisory committee member of the Socially Responsible Investment Club (SRI) was “glad to see that Pres. Liebowitz felt the pressure of the accelerating national fossil fuel divestment movement. His statement was clearly a reaction to the preceding day’s incredible press coverage of fossil fuel divestment by Rockefeller Brothers and 50 other endowments, amounting to $4.2 billion, and the People’s Climate March in NYC.”

Sharing similar sentiments, Teddy Smyth ’15, a staunch advocate of divestment and a member of SRI and SNG (the Sunday Night Group) said, “President Liebowitz’s announcement was in direct response to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund ditching Investure to divest from fossil fuels. Middlebury could have joined with the Rockefellers and divested, but instead we got placating partial measures.” 

Allie Cohen ’16.5, co-president of SRI, is pleased with the work the administration is doing to implement ESG factors. “Research and Investment in Sustainable Equity (RISE) has completely taken off, with a large group of students pitching sustainable and socially responsible companies to each other and voting on which ones they’d like to invest in with the portion of the endowment we manage. I think it’s great that the school has given students a tool to engage with the endowment in a meaningful way, and I know I have learned so much about investing and ESG from RISE.”

Nate Cleveland ’16.5 was excited to see the creation of RISE, a group that he helped form that now manages and invests $150,000 of the college’s endowment by considering ESG in the investment process. “I think that this group has been extremely successful in teaching people about ESG and how it can be implemented in real world situations.”

Cleveland was, however, surprised that there was almost no mention of divestment in the email from President Liebowitz. “In the statement from over a year ago, he said that divestment would continue to be considered, and I’m not sure that that has actually been the case,” he said.

Cohen shared Cleveland’s sentiments, because while acknowledging that the administration is making great progress in this field, felt important factors were left out. “Divestment is definitely one factor that I think should be continually addressed, but there are others that need consideration as well. One of these factors is transparency,” she said.

Cohen cited the new tailgate policy as an example. “Middlebury students are not always clear about how decision-making works in the administration and why certain decisions are made. It’s wonderful that the administration is taking strides to incorporate ESG principles into how the school is run, but shouldn’t students be able to know more details about this process than a summary in an email once a year?” 

She added, “I think students would be much more conscientious in their dealings with the administration (and would have even more respect for the administration) if they were informed about how important decisions that directly affect them are made. SRI hopes to make this push for transparency a key part of our agenda this year, along with our desire to see divestment be continuously considered.”

Bartlett continued, “One great thing about the President’s email is that it introduced new students to some of what students and administrators have achieved in socially responsible investing in the past few years. Students on the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing continue to meet with administrators, and are advocating for fossil fuel divestment, transparency, and enhanced student involvement.”

Virginia Wiltshire-Gordon ’16, co-president of SRI, said “We see this statement as a very positive one. It not only shows how Middlebury is committed to aligning its investments and investment practices with the college’s stated values and mission but also shows that the administration is open to changes and an evolution to reflect the growing risks and opportunities for financial returns that are offered based on factors that have not traditionally been included in analysis, such as ESG factors. Looking forward, we are excited to improve the rigor and depth of ESG principles in our endowment, and to look at our investments not simply to bring “attention those companies that are practicing good ESG principles” but to look objectively for ESG risks in our portfolio as well as the opportunities.”