College investments fund ongoing climate crisis

Students have called for Vassar to divest from fossil fuels. Currently, Vassar invests in fossil fuels (minimally) and has no formal allocation for investing in green energy. Courtesy of VC Divest via Facebook

Over the past two weeks, Vassar has hosted both a climate strike and a community tree planting day to fight climate change. Although these events were led by students, the College has taken a public stance for environmentally friendly policies. In 2016, the administration released a Climate Action Plan, detailing how Vassar hopes to reduce its impact on the changing climate. The plan aims to make the campus carbon neutral by 2030.

The Sustainable Investment section of the Climate Action Plan states the following: “Given that the College’s endowment is one of the key players in ensuring the college’s prosperity through 2050 and beyond, there should be some consideration to the role that these investments play in supporting the kind of society we wish to live and work in.” This mission statement suggests a need for endowment investments that work with green companies.

Vassar has an endowment that nears $1.05 billion, which Vice President for Finance and Administration Steve Danhert explained provides the necessary financial support for the academic goals of the institution.

However, Vassar currently does not have any significant investments in renewable energy. “We do not have a formal allocation to renewable energy, although some of our investment managers have, from time to time, included allocations to renewable energy in the investment portfolios they develop for our account,” Danhert explained.

Co-President of Vassar Greens Lucy Brown ’22 explained via email correspondence that investing regularly in renewable energy would ensure that Vassar takes an important public stance on climate change. Further, fossil fuel availability is declining while prices are rising. “Vassar NEEDS to invest in renewable energy. Fossil fuels are 1) running out, 2) getting more expensive, 3) habitats and ecosystems are being destroyed for its extraction, and 4) most importantly: they CAUSE global warming. This is no longer scientifically disputed.”

Brown pointed out that the College’s current lack of investment reflects what she categorizes as an institutionalized hypocrisy. She underscored, “It amazes me that while Vassar claims to be an institution of higher learning and exceptional academics (which includes the permission to teach courses on the climate crisis and why it exists), it still has not gotten fully on board to be as sustainable as possible.”

SEED member Joseph Wiswell reiterated this sentiment, saying, “What excites me about investing in green energy is that it shows there’s demand for that energy, both in market terms, making it slightly cheaper, but also in political terms.” Wiswell continued, “Vassar’s neighbors and government might take note, and that’s more important than most people realize.”

This is not the first time investments surrounding Vassar’s endowment have been a flashpoint for controversy. Starting in 2013, there was a five-year campaign to divest Vassar’s endowment from fossil fuels, which culminated in the Board’s Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) voting unanimously against divesting (Vassar Alumnae/i, “Op-ed: Lessons Learned from Vassar’s Divestment Decision,” 03.06.18).

As a form of explanation, the Board released a statement on Nov. 1, 2017, writing, “The idea of using Vassar’s endowment as an instrument to express social views is of great concern to both TIRC and the Board of Trustees. The board believes that the endowment of the college exists solely to support the mission of the college and that it is the fiduciary duty of the board, derived from our founding documents, governance, and the state law, to preserve the endowment solely for achieving the best risk-adjusted return.”

Although the Board unanimously voted to continue their involvement with fossil fuels, very few endowment funds are still invested in them, according to Danhert.

“We currently have minimal exposure to fossil fuels,” Danhert explained. “We do not invest heavily in fossil fuels; in fact, at present we have no direct equity investments in Carbon 200 companies. This is a result of investment decisions made by our managers.”

However, for many students, this is not quite enough.

Wiswell added: “The real problem is that Vassar thinks it’s okay to make as much money as it possibly can, regardless of where that money comes from. On the one hand, I’m empathetic. Vassar needs to continue to make money if it is to survive as an institution. However, I also recognize that the drive to profit no matter the cost is a totally deranged thing and is destroying the world.”

While environmental activists on campus all agree that investing in renewable energy and formally divesting from fossil fuels is necessary, Vassar requires far more interventions to reduce its contribution to the threatening forces of climate change. Brown explained that this responsibility falls not only on the institution, but also on all individuals: “While it’s necessary to make these wide-scale changes in energy use, it is still vital that all people move toward more sustainable living. We need not just institutional change but personal behavioral change to fight the climate crisis.”

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