This is the first of a two-part article on the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign’s repeated attempts to engage the Administration and Board of Trustees on fossil fuel divestment. Our experience has made clear to us that Vassar’s trustees do not hear students’ voices, nor reflect our interests and concerns. The Board’s recent threat to defund the Vassar Student Association shows that it does not respect us as adults who can speak and make decisions as a student body. The illusion of the VSA as an autonomous body reflecting students’ concerns was shattered once we approached the invisible limits set by the trustees, beyond which we cannot be trusted with managing our own affairs and necessitates their intervention. In order to further highlight the disjunction between students and trustees, DivestVC publicizes the history of our campaign’s interaction with the administration. Before spring break, members of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign met with the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) to impress on them the importance and necessity of divesting the endowment of direct investments in the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies. Well acquainted with their intransigence on this subject, we specifically approached them with the following three demands in the hopes of constructively furthering the discussion:
Set up a series of individual follow-up calls between divestment campaigners and each TIRC member.
Allow divestment campaigners to present to the full board at the meeting in May.
Cease any attempts to formulate a policy banning divestment indiscriminately in all cases, including cases of genocide.
It was our hope that by opening lines of communication with each of the five trustees who sit on the TIRC, we would be able to hear and respond to their concerns over fossil fuel divestment as individuals. Along the same lines, we did not expect a meeting with the full Board of Trustees would result in an official vote, but we believed that it would allow trustees not on the TIRC to hear arguments from students directly, instead of debating our proposal and concerns in our absence.
Our third demand was the result of being made aware that a policy to categorically ban divestment as a response to corporate ethical violations was being discussed amongst some trustees. We believe that such a course of action is highly irresponsible and indeed morally questionable. It concerns not only our campaign but the ethical standards of our college’s operation. The TIRC rejected all three demands, issuing a statement saying, “We do not believe these demands are consistent with the governance of the college or in its best interest.” It goes on to suggest the campaign bring our concerns to the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), a joint committee which reports to the TIRC.
By refusing to stop considering a categorical ban on divesting from unethical businesses, the trustees imply they are willing to ignore any atrocities or violations committed by corporations we invest our endowment in as long as said investments make us the most money. By refusing, they align the “best interest” of the college with leaving the door open to funding our education using profits made not only from the destruction of our environment, but from racial, sexual and class oppression, mass incarceration, child labor, apartheid, imperialism, war and genocide.
Moreover, apparently the TIRC believes that it is not in the best interests of the college for students to be able to individually communicate with their trustees. Using the Board’s rules of governance as a shield, they seek to lead us into a warren of red tape in order to delay the campaign’s efforts. In informal conversations and calls we have been able to obtain from trustees not on the TIRC, they have also raised this shield to avoid commenting—perhaps dissenting opinions—on the TIRC’s refusal to divest. The party line is, “I defer to the ‘expertise’ of the trustees on the committee” and “I cannot give my views because the Board must speak as a whole.”
In fact, we approached the CIRC with our proposal when we began campaigning in 2012, and have been engaged with them for the past four years. The group is nominally composed equally of students, faculty, alumni and administrators. But student representatives in past years have told us that in reality the administrators, specifically Stephen Dahnert, the Associate Vice President for Financial Services and Treasurer, dominate the conversation using their position of power in the school. Dahnert is opposed to divestment and dissenting members, especially students, are in disadvantaged positions to argue against his claims of expertise in financial management. More fundamentally, however, student representatives from the past four years have all reported that the committee rarely meets, often without a single meeting in the fall semester. In recent years, the CIRC has only convened when the fossil fuel divestment campaign has pushed for it to make a decision on our proposals—students reported that the proposal would be the only item on the agenda.
The CIRC was formed in 1978 during campus debates on Vassar’s investments in apartheid South Africa. A statement written by a member of the committee published in The Miscellany News in 1981 explained that the CIRC was mandated to “find a way to reconcile its commitment to ethical principles with its need for a sound investment portfolio.” In addition, the committee was responsible for “educating the Vassar community on the issue of corporate social responsibility. Finally, the committee was charged with the duty of maintaining itself as a forum for the consideration of other issues of ethical investment” (Miscellany News Letter to the Editor: “Investor Responsibility—Campus Committee Explains the Rules” from Volume LXX, No. 18, 13 Feb. 1981).
We charge that this committee no longer properly carries out its responsibilities. Instead of actively researching and advising the trustees on our investments in unethical or socially irresponsible corporations, the CIRC has left it to conscientious student campaigns to bring forward concerns. Rather than educating the Vassar community as they are supposed to, we had to educate the committee on fossil fuel divestment. We should not be doing this work for them. Exasperated with the ineffectual CIRC, the campaign sought to bring our concerns directly to the TIRC. The current trustees’ continued intransigence and unreceptiveness will be addressed in the next part of this article.