The Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign aims to see the college’s endowment portfolio slowly transition away from holdings in fossil fuel companies. “The Divestment Campaign works with Vassar’s student body, administration, and trustees to ensure a complete and timely divestment from the fossil fuel industry, as part of a broader movement to combat climate change and shape a sustainable economy, society, and environment,” Gabe Dunsmith ’15 explained in an emailed statement. [Full disclosure: Dunsmith is Assistant Opinions Editor for The Miscellany News.] Instead, the group hopes that the funds currently invested in fossil fuel companies will be diverted to more socially conscious companies.
Despite being a relatively new issue-driven group, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign has already engaged with students and the administration in a variety of ways. According to Dunsmith, the co-coordinator of the campaign, since its foundation in the first weeks of the fall semester, the campaign has held an action event in the Retreat, collected hundreds of student signatures and established and disseminated information through social media. The Campaign has also been working with the administration since its foundation. “We’ve been discussing divestment with President Hill, Acting President Chenette, Dean of Strategic Planning Marianne Begemann, and Director of Investments Stephen Dahnert, as well as the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC),” Dunsmith explained. “Discussions have been very cordial on both sides; the Campaign has used many of the Administration’s suggestions to build a stronger divestment proposal…That doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but it means that we’re both open to discussion–and that’s really important.”
On Feb. 8 the divestment campaign hosted their teach-in, called ‘Go Fossil Free! A Teach-In on Divestment.’ The event, which the Divestment Campaign believes attracted over 40 students, featured presentations from three faculty members, Professor of Economics Paul Ruud, Professor of Earth Science and Geography Mary Ann Cunningham, and Professor of Geography and Earth Science Jill Schneiderman. Dunsmith explained, “With the teach-in, we wanted to give students an opportunity to hear from professors on an issue like divestment.”
Each professor presented information that they believed would prove beneficial to the proposal to the Board of Trustees, as well as dispelling common misconceptions about divestment and specicially Vassar’s campaign, before breaking into focus groups to answer more detailed questions and discuss the utility of the information in the coming weeks of the campaign.
Professor Ruud discussed one of the most important, and least understood, aspects of the divestment campaign: its economic viability. According to the professor, slowly transitioning the college away from investments in the fossil fuel industry will pose no significant threat to the stability or size of the endowment. While the precise percentage of the endowment invested in fossil fuels has not yet been identified, he asserted that the number is most likely quite small. However, he was also quick to note that students should not anticipate the college’s divestment causing any significant damage to the fossil fuel industry; rather, he said the necessity of divestment stems from social or moral consciousness.
Professor Cunningham followed up by discussing presentation strategies. Cunningham wrote in an emailed statement, “My contribution was the argument that you need to understand the concerns and fears and motivations of your audience when you are trying to convince them to cooperate. Different people respond to different arguments: a lot of pro-divestment people are motivated by ethical arguments, but the financial officers will respond to instrumental (cost) arguments, mainly. You make progress by being specific about which arguments you choose.”
Professor Schneiderman then discussed the various environmental effects and dangers that the presence of fossil fuel companies have had on the island of Trinidad. This specific information and other examples like it, she believed, would help provide campaigners with strong evidence when they met with the Board.
Two days later, the Divestment Campaign officially brought its resolution to the VSA Council meeting. The resolution asked, “that the Council recognizes the detrimental effects of fossil fuel industries on the environment and human health, endorses the divestment proposal put forth by the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, and the breadth of research, education, and outreach that the campaign has invested in the pursuit of a more sustainable and accountable use of endowment money, and strongly encourages the Board of Trustees to divest.”
One of the key components of the campaign’s resolution was its widespread support from a variety of student organizations, something that new VP for Student Life Dallas Robinson ’14 commended the group on when the resolution was introduced. The proposal of the draft was also witnessed by tens of students involved in the divestment campaign and Vassar Greens. Aside from the joint drafting of the resolution by Abe, Yang, Dunsmith and campaign co-coordinater Noah Bogdonoff ’14, the Divestment Campaign spent weeks discussing the text with other students. According to the text of the resolution, the proposed resolution is supported by 9 student organizations including The Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics, Vassar Animal Rights Coalition, Slow Food, the Vassar Democrats and Feminist Alliance.
“Collaboration with other student organizations was very important for us because the Campaign wanted to create a united front for a sustainable endowment,” Dunsmith explained. “Vassar students’ interests are wide and varied, and so by appealing to multiple student organizations we hoped to reach more students and build a coalition that could take advantage of Vassar’s thriving orgs.”
Despite what Dunsmith characterized as significant support from the Council, the resolution was dealt a minor blow when the resolution was tabled, instead of opened up for a vote. Dunsmith explained, “Though the VSA tabling our resolution wasn’t ideal, it gives the Campaign another opportunity to communicate with the Student Life Office and allows members of the VSA to engage students in the issue of divestment…However, since our immediate plans are to get on the agenda for the Board’s upcoming meeting, we would like to see the resolution passed at the upcoming VSA meeting.”
However, the delayed vote on the resolution has not dampened the resolve or optimism of the group. “I think there’s a lot of support in the VSA, and I’m very thankful that the VSA is so attentive to divestment. As such, I fully anticipate the resolution to pass at this next VSA meeting,” Dunsmith noted.
In spite its mounting efforts, the campaign remains unsure as to the future success of its endeavor to add the issue of divestment in to the Board of Trustees’ March agenda. Dunsmith noted, “Right now the Campaign is engaging with trustees and other College representatives with close ties to the Board. It’s hard to say how likely it is to get on their agenda, but whether or not we get on their agenda we want to show them that we’re doing this because we love Vassar.”