This is the second 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 are not receptive to students’ voices, nor do they reflect our interests and concerns.
In last week’s issue of The Miscellany News, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign detailed the inefficacy of the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), which no longer carries out its original mandate and in fact delays the voicing of student concerns through bureaucracy. We also publicized the rejection of our three specific demands for the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee’s (TIRC) which we presented at our meeting with it in March (The Miscellany News, “TIRC Stifles Activism on Climate Change,” 03.31.2016).
Meeting with the trustee committee, we witnessed once again one voice dominating the rest. Christianna Wood ’81, the chair of the TIRC and an investments/financial analyst, is and has been consistently vocally opposed to fossil fuel divestment. In our meeting with the TIRC we witnessed her opinion regularly overshadowing others’ during the discussion.
Although she has spoken on issues of sustainable capitalism and is involved in organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative, which “promotes the use of sustainability reporting as a way for organizations to become more sustainable and contribute to a sustainable global economy,” her repeated attempts at diverting the fossil fuel campaign to engage in more conservative measures such as shareholder activism have delayed our campaign by providing the semblance of an alternative.
Why such measures, including lobbying politicians, are ineffective has already been rebutted by the campaign (see The Miscellany News, “Divestment Campaign Fuels Campus Environmental Efforts,” Vol. CXLVIII, No. 13, 02.18.2016).
The TIRC is composed of four other members: Henry Johnson ’88, Debra Treyz ’74, William Plapinger ’74 and President Catharine Hill.
Johnson, the chairman of the trustee Investments Committee and an investment manager, was not present at our meeting. This January, he became an Executive Vice President and Vice Chairman of Wealth Management at the Northern Trust Corporation, a “leading provider of wealth management, asset servicing, asset management and banking to corporations, institutions, affluent families and individuals” (Business Wire, “Henry P. Johnson Joins Northern Trust,” 01.11.2016). He has also been engaged in arts, educational and cultural institutions such as the New York Botanical Garden, the Met Museum, the New York Public Library, etc.
Treyz, currently a managing director, has spent over 30 years working in several roles at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and JPMorgan Private Bank. There, she has helped “wealthy families and individuals develop wealth strategies to meet their very personal and often complex international objectives” (JP Morgan Chase, “JPMorgan Private Bank names Debra Treyz Head of Business in Europe, Middle East, and Africa,” 07.30.2002). She is also a founding member of the New York branch of the Society of Estate and Trust Practitioners, and a member of the New York Bankers Association.
Plapinger is a lawyer associated with the firm Sullivan & Cromwell, whose practice focuses on debt and equity capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, and matters of corporate governance. In our meeting, he fielded a new argument against our efforts to push for divestment by asserting that the governance of the Board of Trustees had to be respected. This meant that the full board would not officially consider our proposal, nor meet directly with the students of the campaign, until the TIRC had approved the proposal, which in turn must first be approved by the CIRC.
However, as we have documented in the previous article, the CIRC no longer functions as it should. It no longer actively advises the TIRC on issues of social responsibility, nor is in practice a committee where students, faculty, alumni and administrators are equal in power and voice. The trustees’ insistence on an uncompromising adherence to their governance structure has completely stalled the campaign.
Moreover, we challenge the composition of the TIRC, as well as its membership overlap with the Investment Committee. The TIRC is meant to be a body which advises on the ethical and social aspects of the investment of our endowment. In our informal exchanges with trustees not on the TIRC, they have maintained that they defer to the “expertise” of the trustees who sit on the committee on matters of divestment.
Yet, when there is a separate committee which is in fact responsible for handling investments, why are the “expert” trustees who sit on the TIRC financial analysts, investment managers and bankers? Instead, should the committee not be composed of trustees with specific experience in, and a sensitivity to social justice, ethics and the political ramifications of the Board’s decisions?
What is perhaps the most damning point is that during our meeting, Plapinger himself acknowledged the fact that Vassar is only directly invested in 0-1 fossil fuel corporations at any time, depending on the year. The trustees recognize that the economic impact of divesting from direct investments would be insignificant, meaning their opposition to the prospect is purely ideological.
This ideological opposition seems to be based on the fallacious idea that the school can “remain neutral” on political, economic and social issues. There is an expressed reluctance for the Board to “take sides” on behalf of Vassar, based on the misguided belief that inaction equals neutrality. In fact, the trustees have already made the decision that our college can be funded by profits made from the destruction of the environment and the endangering of lives. They have decided that maximizing the return on our investments trumps considering how that money is made by the fossil fuel industry. By investing, they have already come down on the side of coal, oil and gas.
It is also necessary to add that the urgent need of eliminating fossil fuels from our energy systems to combat climate change transcends politics, an argument stressed recently by philosophy professor Jeffrey Seidman. Professor Seidman pointed out, ‘Climate change is regarded as a ‘political’ issue in America only because one of the two major parties has made denying climate science an ideological requirement. But there is no room for reasonable, well-informed disagreement that climate change is real, that it is anthropogenic, that the consequences of failing to limit it to two degrees will likely be catastrophic for humanity and the planet, and that doing so will require keeping around 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground’ (The Miscellany News, ‘Upcoming Divestment Referendum Ignites Climate Debate’, 03.31.2016).
What marks fossil fuel divestment out is the fact that failing to do everything we can to fight climate change may lead to a catastrophic upending of human society on a larger scale than any other injustice we may fail to address or divest from. The ramifications for the trustees’ inaction on this issue are far greater than any other injustices they may excuse in their investments, because in addition to the social injustices they perpetrate, fossil fuel corporations threaten the continued existence of the entire Earth.
At the end of our meeting, we presented the TIRC with a petition signed by over 130 alumnae/i spanning seven decades of classes and asked to take a photo of this acceptance. Intending to show our alumnae/i supporters that their concerns had been recognized by the trustees, we were surprised when Plapinger refused to take the photo with us. After a tense moment, President Hill offered to accept the petition in the trustees’ stead.
When the chair of the Board of Trustees refuses to even have a photo taken of him speaking with students and accepting an alumnae/i petition, how can this group claim to have the best interests of the school and its students in mind? What are they afraid of—appearing to be receptive to the Vassar community?
It has become apparent to us that at the heart of this institution which aims to foster critical thinking and awareness of social justice lies an undemocratic and closed group of elites who have lost touch with the real concerns of students.
It is imperative that the trustees open themselves to hearing the voices of students as well as faculty and alumnae/i, especially when they challenge its status quo, before they completely forget by whom they are entrusted.