Middlebury students pitch divestment plan to trustees

MIDDLEBURY — Following months of charged discussion among students and administrators about the possibility of divesting the college’s endowment from fossil fuels and weapons companies, seven students presented the case for divestment at the February board of trustees meeting this past Saturday. No decisions were made, but officials lauded the students for their presentation.

“They were prepared and thoughtful, and they approached it in a very professional manner,” said Patrick Norton, vice president for finance and treasurer at Middlebury College. “I was impressed and I think most of the board was too.”

Though the Feb. 16 meeting was optional for board members, students said a majority was present, as was college President Ronald Liebowitz.

The students delivered a 45-minute presentation that was prepared with input from more than 25 students, as well as faculty members and administrators. The presenters were seniors Nathan Arnosti and Craig Thompson; junior Kristina Johansson; sophomores Jeannie Bartlett, Teddy Smyth and Fernando Sandoval Jimenez; and first-year Laura Berry.

The presentation outlined the reasons that students felt divestment was a socially responsible decision and presented the results of a Student Government Association survey that indicated 15 percent of the student body was opposed to divestment, over 60 percent were in support, and around 23 percent had no opinion.

The students also presented studies that they said demonstrated the minimal financial risk of divesting the 3.6 percent of the college’s $900 million endowment currently invested in fossil fuels companies and the 0.6 percent currently invested in weapons manufacturers.

At a Jan. 22 panel discussion, the head of the company that manages a substantial portion of the college’s endowment explained that Middlebury’s portfolio was invested in a commingled fund. Alice Handy, the founder and president of Investure, said that 100 percent of her clients would have to want their portfolio divested for Investure to take that step.

At Saturday’s board of trustees meeting, the students asked the board to divest with or without Investure’s support, suggesting that there were three courses of action that could be taken: 1) to divest with all of Investure’s clients, 2) to divest with a portion of Investure’s clients, and 3) to divest independently of Investure, with the possibility of forming a new consortium of schools committed to building investment portfolios free of fossil fuels and weapons.

The students also stressed the timeliness of their request.

“Middlebury would be at the forefront of a national movement that has 256 active divestment campaigns on college campuses,” said Berry. “We would be the first of our peer institutions to divest and would undoubtedly inspire other institutions in the United States to once again follow in our footsteps and consider divestment.”

They asked that the Middlebury trustees choose a divestment strategy in the coming weeks, and make a public commitment to divest from fossil fuels and weapons by March 15.

Though the next trustees’ meeting is not scheduled until May, the students submitted the March deadline so that on-campus groups could be given time to respond to the trustees’ decision. The students also posited that it would be in the college’s interest to act quickly to ensure that Middlebury maintain its leadership role among its peer institutions.

They requested that Middlebury freeze any new investments in fossil fuels or weapons, and work to divest its portfolio from those industries completely by 2016, which is also the date by which the college has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality (pumping no more climate-changing carbon from fossil fuels into the air than it sequesters in the ground).

Though the Middlebury trustees did not commit to a specific date, students were optimistic that the process would keep rolling forward.

“The presentation was very well received by the trustees,” Smyth told the Independent. “We are thrilled that the board of trustees is engaging in this process, and we are confident that Middlebury will continue its long history of environmental and social leadership by moving to divest.”


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Addison County Independent