For anyone unfamiliar with the history of the fossil fuel divestment campaign at Vassar, our six-year history encompasses unprecedented activism (culminating in the largest environmental action at Vassar, the May 2016 week-long sit-in outside the President’s Office), in-depth bureaucratic work, such as repopulating the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC) and discussing solutions and compiling informational documents for the president.
We call for divestment of Vassar’s direct investments in the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies, a larger demand directed toward universities, religious institutions, city and national governments and more around the globe. We intend not only to raise general awareness about environmental justice (the intersection of climate change’s effects with interlocking social inequalities; e.g. environmental racism, where adverse effects of anthropogenic environmental degradation are disproportionately felt by already-marginalized groups) and make a strong political statement as an institution of higher learning with capital, but also to add to a snowballing movement that can lead to a paradigm shift away from a fossil fuel energy economy.
Although we have met with some trustees before, this particular meeting on Friday, Oct. 20, was unprecedented because CIRC was officially recommending our proposal to divest from fossil fuels to the Board.
Our familiarity with the particular trustees’ positions on divestment—i.e. overwhelmingly negative—led us to expect their unanimous rejection at their vote after the meeting (see link to their rationale at the bottom of this article). Thus, our frustration stems not from this decision, although disappointing, but rather from the egregious lack of respect we feel was given to this topic of paramount importance.
DivestVC has spent countless hours doing what we at Vassar are taught to do: scholarly research, with thorough examination of all sides and possible counter-arguments, along with meticulous and honest citations. Our proposal for fossil fuel divestment, which included extensively researched counterarguments and their rebuttals, was reviewed and approved by CIRC in May. In preparation for the joint meeting of the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) with CIRC on Oct. 20, President Bradley requested we produce a second document. Its aim was to respond to arguments against divestment, particularly to those presented by Christianna Wood ’81, chair of TIRC and the trustee most vocally opposed to divestment, in a 2014 speech to Columbia Law School. In this speech, Wood infrequently referenced evidence and cited none, and when we asked (through President Bradley, since students cannot have access to trustees’ emails), she declined to augment or update any sources.
During the meeting, multiple CIRC members recounted how the trustees repeatedly brought up classic counterarguments against which we had convincingly argued in the documents, and they made little to no reference to the documents at all. There are three central arguments the trustees tend to fall back on. One holds that we should not divest from fossil fuel companies because that would eliminate the college’s ability to engage in shareholder activism, including shareholder voting and proposals of proxies in order to change the company’s practices or governance.
In our proposal and the CIRC/TIRC document, we clearly argue that engagement activism is ineffective in the case of fossil fuel divestment because we don’t want to change these companies, we hope to eliminate them entirely and shift the paradigm away from the destructive monopoly they hold on our energy system. Additionally, we argue, Vassar has never in the past done any shareholder activism with fossil fuel companies and, as far as we know, does not have enough invested in them to make much of a difference.
When one of the CIRC members—who remain unnamed in order to respect the anonymity of all people who were at the Oct. 20 meeting—brought up these points in the meeting, a trustee dismissed them, first saying, “You must be new here” and then going on to say that Vassar does not have the resources to put together a proxy vote or hire a lawyer to write one and that it is simply too difficult right now. We later learned that after the joint meeting, TIRC had a private discussion and vote. DivestVC had previously been told that CIRC/TIRC meeting would serve as a compromise and jumping-off platform.
Many students enter Vassar with certain foundational beliefs and leave with different ones. We would argue this is a primary aim of pursuing a higher education. We learn to back up our beliefs with respected sources and use our power to change systems built on faulty logic and harmful practices.
To move away from complacency with some of the trustees’ deeply rooted convictions that uphold the status quo, we must continue to demand practices that support the values Vassar as an institution claims to uphold. In calling out the frustrating experience of this vital decision-making process, we hope to further the overarching goals of the Vassar student body, faculty and community to increase transparency and open communication of the Board of Trustees.
Moving forward, we hope to further the conversations about transparency and environmental justice. We are helping form a structure with the administration that privileges student and faculty power and research to influence sustainability decisions in the future.
Please reach out to Clare McClellan ([email protected]) if you would be interested in getting involved with this. Please also feel free to request to view either of aforementioned DivestVC documents by emailing Sophie Cash at [email protected] The TIRC decision and rationale can be accessed here.
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