College tackles issue of divestment from fossil fuels

Hannah Matsunaga ‘16 argues against Vassar’s divestment from companies that consume or promote the consumption of fossil fuels. Matsunaga participated in the event held by Vassar Debate Society. Photo By: Emily Lavieri-Scukk
Hannah Matsunaga ‘16 argues against Vassar’s divestment from companies that consume or promote the consumption of fossil fuels. Matsunaga participated in the event held by Vassar Debate Society. Photo By: Emily Lavieri-Scukk
Hannah Matsunaga ‘16 argues against Vassar’s divestment from companies that consume or promote
the consumption of fossil fuels. Matsunaga participated in the event held by Vassar Debate Society. Photo By: Emily Lavieri-Scukk

Last Thursday the Vassar Debate Society held a public debate on whether Vassar should divest from fossil fuel companies. The debate touched on what effects divesting or not divesting would have on VC’s financial livelihood and the environment. The government and the opposition teams debated over the following motion: “Vassar College ought divest from all direct investments in the fossil fuel industry.”

The government team was debating for the motion while the opposition was debating against the motion. The government team consisted of Zack Struver ’15 and Meg Mielke ’14 while the opposition team consisted of Colin Crilly (’15) and Hannah Matsunaga (’16), and Max Moran (‘16) acted as moderator.

The government team of Struger and Mielke talked about the moral and political obligation of Vassar College to promote environmental protection by divesting from the fossil fuel companies. Struger started his argument with an explanation of how 7.5 billion tons of carbon are released annually into the atmosphere and Vassar shouldn’t be putting in money into companies that are destroying the atmosphere. Damage to the environment directly affects human health concerns as well; streams and rivers that are used for human consumption and recreation are being polluted and air smog is exposing individuals to large amounts of chemicals. They mentioned that Vassar needs to take a public stand and contribute to large movements that will spark change in other liberal arts schools by having socially responsible funds.

Crilly and Matsunaga of the oppostition spoke against the motion and explained the way in which divesting from fossil fuel companies would hurt the Vassar endowment. Due to the current fiscal situation, they claimed that the school needs to use the money responsibly and not put the need-blind student loan system and financial aid system at risk. The danger of putting Vassar in financial harm is something the school needs to think about before “politicizing” the endowment just to make a statement. In addition, they argued that having Vassar divest would not lead to a change in the fossil fuel industry, as the school’s shares are only a minute percent of company shares. Vassar would have some say through proxy voting as a shareholder, but none if not a shareholder. The five schools that have divested from fossil fuel companies have small endowments and no need-blind policy; there is also no indication that other schools would follow suit in divesting. While there are green companies that the school could be investing in as an alternative, they think it is a risky new sector with no financial stability; there is a reason why everyone isn’t changing over to green energy from fossil fuel companies.

During the debate, audience members were invited up to the stand to present their own views on the issues. One member of the audience spoke about the livelihoods that the fossil fuel companies are providing and how eliminating the fossil fuel companies is not going to stop our need for fuel. Closing down one company would just prompt another to be started. Instead of divesting all at once, she suggested that the school do it slowly over time. This way our school would be green and not take people’s livelihoods away.

The Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration at Vassar, Stephen Dahnert, talked about his views of divestment: “I oppose fossil fuel divestment and support the College’s decision not to divest. In my view there are a number of reasons not to divest, including the potential for financial loss – not only from the loss of specific investments in fossil fuel companies but also from the loss of very talented and successful commingled fund managers who include fossil fuel holdings in their portfolios,” he explained.

He continued, “Under the divestment proposals that have been submitted to date, the College has been asked to divest all fossil fuel holdings… At present more than 80% of the Vassar endowment portfolio is in commingled funds, many of which have some fossil fuel exposure. We would have to exit these funds if we were to truly divest fossil fuel holdings. For these and other reasons, I cannot anticipate fossil fuel divestment becomine either feasible or advisable.”

Moving into more general commentary on the event, Moran reflected on the debate. “The overarching and singular goal of having this public debate was to disseminate information regarding the issues and circumstances regarding the school’s divestment from Fossil Fuels.  We consider it our prerogative as student leaders to raise the level of discourse over issues prevalent at Vassar and in society — it simply is not enough to be in favor or opposed to something, in order to be able to participate in democratic society and be an informed citizen you have to be able to justify your points of view, you have to be able to articulate your opinions.”

Moran continued, “The point of this debate was not to broadcast our personal political convictions, but rather give the student body the information necessary to form their own.  After the debate only one student stated that they didn’t know enough to have an opinion — I consider that to be a great success.”

Although both sides made strong arguments, it seems like divestment is not within the realm of possibilities for Vassar at the moment. However, there are many opportunities for environmental activism here on campus if this is an issue one is concerned about.

Moran commented, “As an institution Vassar has a carbon footprint, which we have taken strides in recent years to reduce.  I think more can be done on this front.  Vassar has an entire website dedicated to Sustainability and campus wide initiatives facilitated by “Eco-Leaders” to further environmental awareness.  I think the issue of our own carbon footprint needs to be brought front and center, and that we actively attempt to orient our community towards being sustainable.”

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