On Feb. 7, VSA Council approved a Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign’s resolution by consensus. The approved resolution urged three things: for the VSA Council to endorse the Divestment Campaign, for the VSA to encourage the Board of Trustees to commit to the cause of divesting and for the Council to encourage the College’s leadership to execute these commitments (“Vassar Student Association Resolution 30-3”).
This is the latest in a several-year long stream of efforts by the Divestment Campaign to encourage Vassar administration to endorse divestment efforts suggested by students. The Divestment Campaign, better known to many on campus as DivestVC, was originally founded in September 2012 by Noah Bogdonoff ’14 and Gabe Dunsmith ’15, and has since held several events to raise awareness for the movement including arts displays, signs scattered across the campus, and a mock wedding between Vassar and fossil fuel industries.
The target audience of the Divestment Campaign’s actions is the Board of Trustees. Generally, the Board of Trustees is in charge of where a great portion of the College’s funds are allocated for investment. A great amount of these funds are placed into hedge funds, where the money is circulated across many different corporations. Committees such as the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC) and the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) are subcommittees and joint committees that make proposal recommendations for the Board to consider.
“The goal was to get the Board of Trustees to remove all of the financial holding in fossil fuel companies. That remains the intent of the group,” Dunsmith explained, “Divestment is looking at the externalities of Vassar’s financial investment. It’s trying to encourage the college to move that money out of fossil fuel corporations for the purpose of making a moral statement against the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas.”
The Divestment Campaign drafted its first proposal throughout 2012 and 2013, requesting a full and prompt divestment of College funds from the fossil fuel industry and suggested for the CIRC to instead invest in completely renewable sources of energy. The proposal passed the VSA Council, but was met with staunch criticism from the CIRC and TIRC. “I don’t think that [those committees] liked the idea of students trying to tell Vassar where to put its money,” Dunsmith mused.
One of the current co-coordinators of the Divestment Campaign, Elise Ferguson ’17, also commented on the disagreements between the students and the College’s fund managers. “Our proposal passed the VSA because it was supported by the student body, but there is a schism between the desires of the student body—and even the faculty and alumni—and the people who are governing Vassar. It didn’t pass those committees because it was either too broad or complicated,” she explained.
American author and President of the Center for Industrial Progress Alex Epstein is one opponent of the divestment campaigns appearing in college campuses nationwide. “The leaders of the divestment movement say it is not debatable that the fossil fuel industry is ‘Public Enemy Number One’ — that it deserves to be publicly humiliated by having America’s leading educational institutions single it out for divestment. But the divestment movement refuses to grapple with, let alone educate students about, the staggering, and arguably irreplaceable, benefits we derive from that industry,” Epstein wrote.
Epstein himself had visited Vassar before, and organized a talk on the subject. He wrote, “Many Vassar students…were inspired to extensively study and debate the issues. Universities around the country should follow their example by providing more education and promoting more debate, so that the best ideas can win out” (Forbes, “Universities Must Reject Environmentalist Calls To Divest From The Fossil Fuel Industry,” 08.28.13).
The authors of the Divestment Campaign resolution are convinced of their research’s results. As the document itself outlines, however, “Divestment would not have major economic impacts on fossil fuel companies…Divestment over a reasonable time frame would not pose a significant risk of financial loss, especially considering the volatile nature of fossil fuel investments and inherent instability of the carbon bubble,” the resolution reads. Lastly, the author’s stated that such efforts would lead to societal awareness and encourage others to lessen the impact of their damages (“Vassar Student Association Resolution 30-3,” 02.07.16).
The new proposal that passed on Sunday is more streamlined, Ferguson explained. Instead of reallocating the funds the College had placed into hedge funds, which contribute to various fossil fuel organizations, the Divestment Campaign suggested only to adjust direct investments the College makes. “That’s a very simple process,” Ferguson assured.
Now that the proposal has been approved by the VSA Council, the Divestment Campaign’s goal is to garner enough attention to hold a referendum. According to Ferguson, a referendum had been the Divestment Campaign’s primary goal when writing this document. “Although a resolution has been done before, a referendum on divestment has not happened,” she remarked. A referendum would allow the entire student body to vote for and support the resolution. By doing so, the Divestment Campaign hopes that this effort would encourage the CIRC and TIRC to approve these new proposals and allow divestment to become a reality at Vassar. Ferguson commented, “It would be significant if we could make that work out. We want to get that done by the time the Board of Trustees comes so we can show that the campus and the student body really do want divestment from fossil fuels.”