One of the common arguments against fossil fuel divestment, largely perpetuated by Vassar’s administration and trustees, is that divestment will cost the college money that it is using to fund financial aid and need-blind admission. Although a proper reinvestment strategy will effectively eliminate all concern about hurting the endowment, it is important to address the underlying idea upon which this argument is based. When those opposed to divestment argue that money invested in fossil fuel corporations benefits the endowment, they are essentially saying it doesn’t matter where we get our money from as long as it is being put to good use. Here is a dividing line we as a student body cannot cross.
Last week, BP spilled an estimated 1,228 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan, only four years after its Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico that is still affecting marine ecosystems and the Gulf economy today. Tar sands operations in Canada frequently–and often illegally–intrude on First Nations land, contaminating drinking water, causing health issues, destroying homes and endangering food sources. Every year, fossil fuel corporations spend millions of dollars disseminating counter-information that challenges peer-reviewed research about the reality, extent and potential damage of climate change. Fossil fuel corporations are deeply entrenched in Congress and have the lobbying power to thwart legislation on emissions regulations, extraction rights and energy subsidies. What we cannot afford to ignore is that the money we obtain from this industry through investments is money made from committing such abuses.
Financial aid and most of the college’s other expenditures are theoretically used to help create a diverse environment and improve the quality of education and campus life. But does the source of this funding matter? Of course it does. We simply cannot justify profiting from these injustices, regardless of what we are doing with the money. There is always danger in such instrumental rationalizing, and taking an ends-justify-means approach in this case not only detracts from the good done with dirty money, but runs counter to ethical conduct. The benefits we enjoy will and must always be haunted by the knowledge of the way a part of those funds were generated. A recent skit staged by VC Divest in the College Centre demonstrated the school’s hypocrisy by continuing to invest in fossil fuel corporations and simultaneously claiming goals of sustainability. Staging a wedding between Vassar College and the Fossil Fuel Corporations, the action presented the problem of an institution with a stated commitment to social justice becoming too close with corporations that do not uphold the same values.
Multiple objections were raised by several speakers who interrupted the mock wedding ceremony, reiterating the fact that by choosing to continue investing in the fossil fuel industry, Vassar is already making a political statement already issuing tacit approval and support for those corporations’ gross human rights and environmental abuses. The skit ended with this mock wedding interrupted, but as the priest pronounced at the beginning, “We come together not to mark the start of a relationship, but to recognize a bond that already exists.” Such a tainted relationship will continue, so long as Vassar continues to profit from investments in the industry.
The college’s decision not to divest ignores the inherently political nature of its endowment. We urge Vassar to find ethical and environmentally sustainable alternatives for financing the endowment, recognizing that any potential financial security offered by fossil fuel investments violate the school’s commitment to teaching and practicing social justice. The money that we use to benefit our institution must not come at the expense of others. It is time for Vassar to act not out of convenience, but take full responsibility for its actions.
—Graham Stewart ’16, Dylan Finley ’17 & Martin Man ’16