MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College announced on Tuesday that it would take formal steps to consider divesting its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
The announcement was made via an all-campus email from college President Ron Liebowitz, who committed to hosting panel discussions with “experts in endowment management and divestment.” Those panels would include representatives from Investure, the company that manages the college’s endowment; Middlebury Scholar-in-Residence and global warming activist Bill McKibben; and “veteran investment managers.”
Liebowitz also disclosed for the first time that the college’s endowment currently had about $32 million — 3.6 percent of its $900 million total — directly invested in fossil fuel companies, and 0.6 percent directly invested in weapons companies.
“A look at divestment must include the consequences, both pro and con, of such a direction, including how likely it will be to achieve the hoped-for results and what the implications might be for the college, for faculty, staff, and individual students,” Liebowitz wrote.
The “hoped-for results” of divestment from fossil fuel companies are widespread. Student activists at Middlebury have focused on a perceived contradiction between the college’s stated goals of sustainable environmental stewardship and the returns it nets from investing parts of its endowment in the fossil fuel industry; the students have expressed a desire to have the institution’s actions match its moral principles.
Historically, colleges across the country have put financial pressure on unethical companies through divestment, notably in protest of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s. And after an election season where politicians mostly declined to engage in a discussion on climate change, the divestment movement is also widely seen as a way to get climate change back in the national political discussion.
The college’s statement came at the end of a fall semester that saw several student-led protests on campus that championed the divestment cause. The student actions included a false press release announcing divestment circulated by students posing as a “Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee,” and a demonstration at a talk by a visiting Shell Oil Co. executive. Student groups on campus nabbed statewide media coverage for some of their actions.
Separately but concurrently, McKibben in November launched a cross-country tour calling for colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuels. 350.org described the 21-city “Do The Math” tour as “an effort to connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change, and the fossil fuel industry, which McKibben called a “rogue industry.”
“You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet — but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both,” he said in a statement.
The divestment movement seems to be catching fire nationwide: At press time on Wednesday, the website of the national divestment campaign “Go Fossil Free” (coordinated by a coalition of environmental groups, including McKibben’s 350.org, the Energy Action Coalition and the Sierra Club’s Sierra Student Coalition) was hosting petitions from 146 campuses, and a New York Times article this week on student calls for divestment topped its “Most E-mailed” list.
Unity College in New York and Hampshire College in Massachusetts are the first two colleges to have met the “Go Fossil Free” campaign’s requirements, by divesting from the 200 companies that activists say control the majority of the world’s fossil fuels. The campaign also calls for institutions to divest within five years from ownership in comingled investment funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.
McKibben, a longtime Middlebury professor who founded the global climate campaign 350.org over dinnertime discussions with students in Middlebury’s dining halls, seemed to find Middlebury’s announcement particularly sweet.
“President Liebowitz used just the right tone and took precisely the right step,” McKibben wrote in a Tuesday statement through 350.org. “It won’t be easy to divest, but I have no doubt that Middlebury — home of the first environmental studies department in the nation — will do the right thing in the right way. It makes me proud to be a Panther.”
Though the college’s commitment to hosting panel discussions does not signify a commitment to divest, college officials say that facilitating a discussion is a good first step.
“The way we invest has consequences and it’s important to be cautious and deliberate about those consequences,” said Jack Byrne, Middlebury College’s director of sustainability initiatives. “I think the way we are going about doing this is a good approach. We’re taking the holistic approach and being responsible and thorough in our research.”
While Byrne, who heads up the college’s carbon neutrality efforts and works with faculty to bring sustainability issues into the classroom, thinks that the intention to invest responsibly is a “very good goal,” he emphasized that a healthy endowment plays a critical role in the college’s long-term success and well being.
“The desire would be to see that we get equivalent returns for more responsible investments,” Byrne said. “That’s the path before us.”