College divests from fossil fuels

Photo courtesy of VC Divest via Facebook.

On Oct. 18, President Bradley shared via email a statement from the Board of Trustees that announced their unanimous decision to divest from direct fossil fuel investments. This announcement followed nine years of student activism calling for the College to divest and the lead of several other colleges that have divested from fossil fuels, such as Brown, Columbia and Georgetown (Inside Higher Ed, 2021). The statement also updated the campus community on the College’s Climate Action Plan and their goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, as well as addressing climate-conscious amendments to the campus course offerings.

According to the Trustees’ statement, Vassar has implemented a new climate-conscious investment strategy based on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) regulations. The Trustees wrote: “We have no direct investments in any company that explores, refines, or develops reserves of fossil fuels and as a long-term investor, we do not plan to make such investments in the future.”

They continued, “We recently declined to re-invest in a small private equity investment in fossil fuel hard assets, an investment that was made years ago that represents less than 2% of our portfolio. This has put our last private equity fossil fuel manager into runoff. We do not plan to make additional investments in private equity strategies that focus on fossil fuel investments in the future.” The College has also established a portfolio of investments that aims to assist in the development of green businesses.

The statement described the College’s commitment to integrating sustainability and other environmental issues into its curriculum. Examples included the Grand Challenges program, a five-year initiative that connects environmental issues with STEM education; a multidisciplinary program in Environmental Studies, the Environmental Research Institute, and the Environmental Cooperative and the Jill Troy Werner ’71 Endowment for Research and Teaching on climate change and sustainability, which funded multidisciplinary courses, conferences, and research projects on climate change. Additionally, the statement mentioned the offering of a sustainability correlate sequence and climate change sequence, the latter of which was created in 2019.

The Board also shared updates on the College’s other sustainability initiatives, writing: “We are proud to already be more than halfway to our goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.” They continued, sharing that the College, as of July 1, 2021, only purchases completely renewable energy, and that the College’s carbon footprint has diminished by over 15,000 m tons since 2005.

In their joint statement, the Board of Trustees wrote, “We are addressing this most crucial global challenge to ensure that our climate can continue to support future generations without compromising our fundamental fiduciary responsibility to ensure that access to a Vassar education is available to a diverse student body in perpetuity.”
With these announcements, the Board committed to avoiding direct investments in fossil-fuel-focused companies. In terms of indirect investments, they pledged to avoid private-equity investments with many properties involved in fossil fuel resources, but did not detail investing in funds that contained some of these resources. This can be difficult to avoid, however, since the purpose of funds is to mitigate risk by containing a wide range of properties. Vassar encourages gifting stocks, including mutual funds, to the College (Vassar College, 2021). In comparison, Georgetown University’s fossil fuel divestment policy includes a clause allowing the University to maintain some indirect investments, such as funds, which must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis (The Hoya, 2020).
In email correspondence with The Miscellany News, Chair of the Board Anthony Friscia ’78 elaborated on the decision, writing: “Throughout the years, [the Board of Trustees has] maintained an open dialogue with our community to address this most vital issue, seeking solutions to how we protect the environment in ways that are in line with our values and that recognize the voices of our students, faculty, alumni, and employees. We believe that this comprehensive statement and set of actions strengthen us as a college.”

The fight for divestment has had its roadblocks: In 2013 the Board decided against divesting from fossil fuels. Then in 2017 the Board’s Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) unanimously decided against divesting from fossil fuels. At that time TIRC released a statement saying they felt it was inappropriate to use the endowment to assert social or political opinions: “The idea of using Vassar’s endowment as an instrument to express social views is of great concern to both [the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee] and the Board of Trustees. The board believes that the endowment of the [C]ollege exists solely to support the mission of the [C]ollege 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.”

When asked why now is the appropriate time to express social views with the endowment, Friscia responded: “Vassar has been moving in this direction for quite some time, and we have recognized that as long-term investors, the best approach is to formally adopt ESG as a part of our investment policy.” He continued, “We are confident that this investment policy will yield the best long-term return for the endowment and the college.”

The decision to divest has been a long time coming; student activists have called for divestment from fossil fuels for nine years. Student activists have employed a variety of tactics in the push for divestment, such as a human oil spill demonstration, a 2016 sit-in with over 500 participants outside of then-President Catharine Bond Hill’s office and decorating the College’s sidewalks in chalk with statements in support of divestment.

Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED), formally known as Divest Vassar College, has been actively involved in the student push for divestment. SEED member Katie Doroski ’22 said of the announcement to divest: “SEED is excited that the nine years of work have finally culminated in our success; we’re proud of the announcement. The divestment announcement appears to follow most of our demands, and we will continue to be involved to ensure that it is implemented in ways that we approve.”

Doroski explained that SEED expanded their efforts after the Board decided against divestment in 2013. “Once the first resolution was dismissed, SEED (then known as Divest VC) escalated its tactics with a variety of public actions, including a mock wedding between fossil fuel industries and Vassar, art displays, banner drops, rallies, a social media campaign, a teach-in, a musical disruption of the new science center’s ribbon-cutting open house, a ‘die-in’ [with a] speech,” she said. She noted that student activism has also led to other climate-conscious developments on campus, such as the 2016 Climate Action Plan, which established Vassar’s goals of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Doroski continued, “We’re very grateful for everyone involved in the push for Vassar to divest, to all of the hours and hours of time dedicated to reaching this goal, and can’t wait to continue our involvement to hold Vassar accountable and engage with the community.”

Friscia acknowledged the impact of student activism on the Board’s decision to divest, stating, “Students do research, advocate, and really are partners. We cannot always do things exactly the way they would like, but their voices have influenced our decisions.”

He continued, “In the discussion that preceded the Board’s unanimous vote on this, one Trustee, in fact, made the point that all of the student advocates should be congratulated for their work. No one in the Zoom room of 25-plus Trustees disagreed.”

Fossil fuels are not the only investment concern on campus. In April of 2021 the Vassar College Prison Divestment Campaign released a statement and petition calling for Vassar to divest from the prison industrial complex. When asked if he sees this in Vassar’s future following the divestment from fossil fuels, Friscia responded: “Vassar does not have direct investments in private, for-profit prisons, and does not anticipate making any such investments.”

However, students have also expressed concern about direct investments in companies that support private prisons, such as prison food, uniform and facility providers. In April of 2021, speaking in regards to the College’s investment in Trinity Services Group (a prison food service provider), Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Caroll commented, “Vassar has no control over this investment, as it is co-mingled with other investors and controlled by a common fund. The endowment exists to support the mission of the College and the primary goal of its management is to achieve the best risk-adjusted return. Our endowment’s portfolio manager is a signatory to the United Nations’ Principles of Responsible Investment.”

The Board of Trustees provided an optimistic outlook on the future of their divestment plans at the end of their statement: “Climate change did not happen overnight. It is, however, accelerating at an untenable pace, and it is our responsibility, as global citizens, to make every effort and take every opportunity to effect change. At Vassar College, we will continue to push ourselves, to dig deep, and use our collective creativity to be a part of the solution.”

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