Vassar must take lead in fossil fuel divestment

The Vassar Greens, having launched a campaign this year to encourage Vassar to divest from fossil fuels, are thankful for last week’s coverage in the Miscellany News (“Greens push for VC to divest from fossil fuels, 12.06.2012). As colleges’ pulling of funds from fossil fuels becomes a national issue, we are excited to work with the student body, administration, and Board of Trustees to bring divestment to the table. Moving into 2013 with hundreds of signatures and having held talks with other student organizations, the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), and President Hill, the Greens’ Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign is hard at work to ensure that Vassar’s endowment reflects the values of a 21st-century education.

The Greens have partnered with environmental organizations like Bill McKibben’s 350.org to help fight climate change from our own campus. 350.org’s name is derived from the safe amount of carbon, in parts per million, that can be in the atmosphere—and we’ve already reached 390 ppm. 350.org has launched a huge nationwide effort surrounding divestment, in concert with the group’s other efforts to combat climate change with people-powered organizing. When our political leaders fail to address issues like this, students across the nation—and their administrators—are compelled to act. What does this mean at Vassar? It means divesting from corporations that have recklessly endangered our health and put our future in jeopardy.

When donors give money to Vassar, that money goes into the endowment. Vassar then uses that money to invest in the stock market, and those returns on investments go back to the endowment or enter the school’s operating account. A portion of Vassar’s stock market holdings, however, support the fossil fuel industry, which has a track record of environmental and social abuse (e.g., BP’s oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, or blowing up West Virginia’s mountains for coal). Divestment—withdrawing our stock investments from fossil fuel companies and redistributing those funds elsewhere—appears to be the best way to target corporations that put profit above health.

Vassar’s investment policy should ensure that its money does not support the abuses of corporations like BP, Exxon, or Massey. The Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign wants to work with Vassar to align our investments with a vision of social equality and human health. As such, divestment is in keeping with the College’s mission of “a humane concern for society, and a commitment to an examined and evolving set of values.” Vassar’s endowment, which now sits at over $800 million, has performed admirably in recent years. We expect it to continue doing so without fossil fuel companies. In fact, there is tremendous potential for growth in the endowment if funds are reinvested in renewable energies.

Though Vassar as an individual institution may not have an impact on the targeted companies if it withdraws its shares, multiple institutions acting in solidarity will have a major impact on the industry. We are not asking Vassar to single-handedly take on the fossil fuel industry. We are asking Vassar to join a national movement. A national divestment movement has begun—large institutional endowments divesting from a set of the most harmful companies will generate economic consequences for the fossil fuel industry. Vassar’s divestment would signal a social, moral, and ethical rejection of politics as usual.

As a historically progressive institution, it seems inconsistent at best for Vassar to tout an education of critical engagement with systems of oppression while investing in those same systems. Vassar expects its students and alumni to challenge themselves and others; and now, we expect our college to align its principles with its actions. We want the student body’s choices to be heard, respected, and acted upon. To carry on with “economics as usual” is to disregard Vassar’s social responsibility to its students and society at large.

Divestment goes hand-in-hand with a reduction in campus energy use. Vassar has already proven its dedication to reducing energy usage on campus in myriad ways. Without providing an exhaustive list, we can quickly note the College’s dedication to phasing out coal usage; we can note the geothermal systems that now heat Davison House and the new TAs and THs; we can note the school’s dedication to its co-generation plant which assures less energy is lost in the process of production and dissemination. All of these steps are excellent, yet they do not challenge the fossil fuel industry’s business model of extraction and pollution. And that’s where divestment comes in.

Through divestment, Vassar can demonstrate that the fossil fuel industry’s business strategy is antiquated and destructive. Vassar can tell the coal, oil, and gas industries that their days of pollution are over and that it’s time for a new age of renewables. Not only will divestment help build a better future for all of Vassar’s students, but it will gain the College nationwide recognition and draw many prospective students who are looking for a sustainable and socially-aware college in a world that all too often lacks these traits.

Vassar has divested twice already: from South Africa in the 1980s, and from companies involved in the Darfur genocide in 2006. We know that divestment can happen again. When we work as a collective of students, employees, and administrators, or as a collective of colleges, we have power. Let’s use this power make the decisions that our future requires.

—Gabriel Dunsmith ’15 is Assistant Opinions Editor. Jillian Guenther ’13 is an Environmental Studies major and co-president of the Vassar Greens. Celia Castellan ’13 is an Urban Studies major and co-president of the Vassar Greens.

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