Divestment resolution passes VSA, seeks referendum

Students protested inside Taylor Hall to persuade trustees to divest from energy companies that capitalize on the burning of fossil fuels while also seeking a referendum on the issue. Courtesy of Divest Vassar
Students protested inside Taylor Hall to persuade trustees to divest from energy companies that capitalize on the burning of fossil fuels while also seeking a referendum on the issue. Courtesy of Divest Vassar
Students protested inside Taylor Hall to persuade trustees to divest from energy companies that capitalize on the burning of fossil fuels while also seeking a referendum on the issue. Photo courtesy of Divest Vassar

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.”

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