The faculty voted by a wide margin to endorse the Student Government Association (SGA) fossil fuel divestment bill in a Sense of the Faculty Motion on Friday, Nov. 2. Professors Michael Sheridan, Jon Isham, Kemi Fuentes-George and Maggie Clinton spearheaded the proposal, which passed by an 86-7 vote, seeking to officially affirm the faculty’s support for the divestment proposition. Titled “Resolution to Divest Middlebury’s Endowment From Fossil Fuels,” the SGA proposal will be discussed at a Board of Trustees meeting in January.
After an initial introduction by the cohort of professors, SGA Co-Director of Environmental Affairs Divya Gudur ’21 and Alice Butler ’19 elaborated on the focal points of the SGA effort to the faculty audience. The two students were joined by SGA Co-Director of Environmental Affairs Leif Taranta ’20.5, Lucy Weiss ’20.5 and Cora Kircher ’20 in the audience, who later responded to questions from the faculty.
Isham read a statement from Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence and one of the world’s leading environmentalists, urging the faculty to support the proposition. The floor was then opened to debate.
The discussion was primarily centered around the fiscal responsibility of divesting. Professor of Mathematics Peter Schumer questioned the presenters on whether there would be financial ramifications to the measure. The proponents, in turn, cited a comparison between two nearly identical 2010 MSCI indices, with the sustainable alternative sporting .97-percent higher returns.
Professor of Political Science Keegan Callanan expressed doubt, pointing to a Swarthmore study that concluded that divesting would cost $200 million over the next 10 years. Framing divestment as a result of “fluttery hearts” easily wavered by moral righteousness, Callanan also stated that the financial repercussions may influence the college’s ability to provide financial aid.
Taranta, who self-identified as a recipient of financial aid, expressed their frustration at Callanan’s attempt to hold hostage the divestment effort with financial aid priorities.
“These are not fluttery hearts, they’re the opposite,” added Isham, responding to Callanan’s earlier comparison. The two received a round of applause from the faculty.
Fuentes-George also cautioned against associating divestment with financial losses. He pointed to the surge in alumni donations in early adopters of divestment. Professor of Anthropology Marybeth Nevins said that divestment itself is deeply associated with 350.org and Middlebury. Being consistent with the institution’s image in the public sphere, Nevins argued, is the best way to lead by example.
Ultimately, the motion was passed with an overwhelming majority. While the Sense of the Faculty Motion is not a binding decision for the college, it is a rare occurrence and bears significant weight.
“In this case, we were acting in an advisory capacity because our job as a faculty is teaching and scholarship, not financial management,” Sheridan said. “But the administration usually takes this sort of advice seriously, because faculty governance is one of the things that makes Midd work the way it does.”
One previous example of the Sense of the Faculty Motion was when the faculty voted to forward diversity-enhancing initiatives at the college, which have since been incorporated by the administration.
“In this case, however, we’re advising the college how to present the general will of the community to the Board of Trustees in their January meeting,” Sheridan said.
The student leaders, who garnered the support of the faculty, will present the endowment divestment bill this January. “We’re excited for the concrete faculty support and what comes next with the January Board of Trustees meeting,” Gudur said.
They are currently conversing with Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration David Provost, who is coordinating with the administration to find options to replace the fossil fuel investments in the endowment.
“There will be several calls with board members over the next weeks, and they are hoping to ratify a proposal in the January board meeting,” Taranta said.