Divestment faces diverging paths

by Jaden Young | 4/26/17 2:30am

They have the facts. They have the support. Institutional change, however, eludes them.

Members of Divest Dartmouth are increasingly frustrated with the lack of action by the College in response to their over four-year campaign for fossil fuel divestment.

The group has made their demands clear. They want the College to divest itself from all holdings in a specific list of 200 fossil fuel companies: the top 100 public coal companies and the top 100 gas and oil companies, ranked by how much carbon their reserves could emit into the atmosphere. In 2016, Dartmouth’s endowment holdings in those top 200 fossil fuel companies was about $2 million.

For Divest Dartmouth, divestment is less about hurting fossil fuel companies financially and more about the symbolic significance of divestment. Divestment, they say, would show that the College takes the threat of climate change very seriously and condemns the methods of fossil fuel companies.

“If Dartmouth remains invested in these companies, Dartmouth is sending a message that we think that fossil fuels will be a profitable investment, meaning that we will profit off the world not acting on climate change,” said Leehi Yona ’16, a founder of Divest Dartmouth.

The College isn’t the only institution with holdings in these industries, and activists hope it could act as a leader in the movement.

“Hopefully, Dartmouth divesting, because we’re such a prominent institution, could help other colleges divest, set off a wave,” Catherine Rocchi ’19 said.

As divestment efforts at other top schools secure partial successes, Divest Dartmouth continues its push for the College’s Board of Trustees to take up the issue.

“Here you have this incredibly successful group of students who have done everything that the administration asked them to do and has demonstrated that this is something that is critically important and that there is support for this, and the administration does not really engage with us in conversation in anyway,” Yona said. “That is incredibly frustrating.”

Divest Dartmouth was founded in 2012. Yona is currently working on a master’s of environmental science at Yale University, but maintains what she calls “a far away mentorship role” for the group as they continue to advocate for divestment.

“For me, Divest Dartmouth was a way of shifting the conversation on campus around climate change away from the individual actions we were taking, which are important, but which, alone, will not really get at the root of this problem — to the role systems such as the fossil fuel industry has played in actually causing this problem,” Yona said.

In the years since its founding, Divest Dartmouth has seen its membership and community support continually grow, bolstered by public events like the Big Green Rally.

Held in April 2016, Divest Dartmouth’s Big Green Rally was the most co-sponsored event in the College’s history, attracting over 100 co-sponsor groups.

Along with community engagement events, Divest Dartmouth has collected over 2,500 signatures on a petition in support of their cause. Its associated alumni group, Dartmouth Alumni for Climate Action, also sent in a letter reaffirming their support of divestment that was signed by over 500 alumni spanning nearly 60 class years.

“Our strategy has been, so far, to follow all of the rules that the administration is giving us, but at the same time to demonstrate how much people care about this issue,” Yona said. “But I don’t think that the administration has responded to us in a way that acknowledges how much support we have.”

Beyond generating student, faculty, staff and alumni support, Divest Dartmouth’s efforts have been geared toward those who are ultimately able to make the decision on divestment: College President Phil Hanlon and the Board of Trustees.

“The Board of Trustees is the entity that has decision-making power over what we do with the endowment — with that said, every single historical decision to divest ourselves of anything has come from the president,” said Jay Raju ’18, citing both the College’s 1989 divestment from apartheid-complicit companies and its more recent [2012] divestment from tobacco companies.

According to Divest members, who have attended more than 30 of Hanlon’s office hours, Hanlon expressed to them that before Board action would even be considered, they would need a report on fossil fuel divestment from the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The ACIR is able to review socially-driven investment matters and make recommendations to the Board of Trustees if the president determines action is needed.

Divest Dartmouth was able to meet with the ACIR, and in August 2014 Hanlon commissioned a report from the committee analyzing the pros and cons of fossil fuel divestment.

The resulting report, released in April 2016 and written by Thayer School of Engineering professor Mark Borsuk, Katie Zhang ’16 Th’16 and Kasidet Trerayapiwat Th’16, detailed a decision-making framework for considering divestment. The reports evaluated the ethical, financial, academic and symbolic impact of divestment. Under that framework, the report concluded that the option to partially divest from only the 15 dirtiest fossil fuel companies was more viable than the option to take no action but advised that the most desirable degree of divestment was difficult to determine without more information about potential donor and alumni reactions.

“That [Borsuk’s] report did not result in immediate institutional action is disheartening, but it is telling in many ways,” Raju said.

After the success of the Big Green Rally, students from Divest were finally granted a meeting with trustees Bill Helman ’80 and Rick Kimball ’78 and Hanlon in September 2016.

In a recording of that meeting, Helman reads from a prepared statement, “It is important to remember that our endowment exists to support the current and future educational missions of the college. It is not a mechanism for addressing social and political goals, no matter how worthy. Limiting investment flexibility can compromise our ability to fund both our current and future operations, including our own scholarly work to find the solution to the problem of climate change.”

Speaking to The Mirror this week, Raju refuted that claim, which he identified as a common argument against divestment.

“Just open up the history books,” he said. “We divested from apartheid-complicit companies, and that mattered. We divested from tobacco companies. As a college, Dartmouth is an institution that makes statements no matter what it does, political or otherwise. It doesn’t have a choice of saying this is a political action and this isn’t a political action. Choosing not to divest from fossil fuel companies makes the statement that we agree with the values and missions and methods of those companies.”

In the meeting, Helman and Kimball stressed that Dartmouth’s investment office does not purposefully purchase stock in fossil fuel companies for the endowment. According to them, all of Dartmouth’s holdings in fossil fuel companies are either gifts given to the College that they have not yet sold off or are holdings in separate accounts with outside managers.

They conceded that there was no policy explicitly prohibiting them from purchasing fossil fuel stocks.

For Rocchi, the meeting was unsatisfying.

“There weren’t any questions we couldn’t answer, no arguments they put forth that we didn’t have a rebuttal to, but, essentially, what they told us was that divestment just wasn’t a priority for them right now,” she said. “In my view, that’s just incredibly short-sighted. Climate change should obviously be a priority for us.”

Rocchi cautioned against conflating the results of that meeting with the sentiments of the Board as a whole.

“I don’t want to give the impression that all trustees are anti-divestment. We definitely have a few passive supporters in there,” she said, though she remained mum on exactly which trustees she was referring to.

Since that meeting, Rocchi said, “There’s been a little bit more back and forth, but we’re at a stalemate where they’re just refusing to make a decision on divestment.”

The group’s recent event on April 13, in which members strung empty Keystone Light cans together in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline, engaged students but failed to generate a response from the administration.

“Divest is in a position where we have positive momentum, but we are not a threatening existence on campus,” Raju said. “We had a Keystone Pipeline event in front of Parkhurst, and if anything, that served to boost the College’s public relations — like there’s a cool, activist event happening on campus that all the prospies got to see ... we are not an organization whose purpose is just to show the outside world that Dartmouth students can be activists.”

As the College continues to avoid making a decision on fossil fuel divestment, Divest Dartmouth members’ frustration increases.

“Our ask has always been the same: requesting more access to trustees in order to compel the Board to divest, or requesting that this decision be at least put on the agenda so Board members can vote and talk about it,” Raju said. “At every turn, we’ve been met not with a hard no, but with an, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ which is exceedingly frustrating when the person in question doesn’t actually get back to you.”

To advance their position, the group is considering a change of tactics.

“In the event that nothing changes, we’re definitely looking to escalate as a group in the next few terms,” Rocchi said. “They’re afraid that if they take the divestment decision to the Board and the Board says no, that would also be a reason for us to escalate, so they’re trying to just string us along asking for little things — a little back and forth — so we feel like something is happening, but it’s really just stalling.”

According to Rocchi, the group is considering a number of options for escalation, including sit-ins, similar to actions taken by other divestment activists at other colleges.

“The risk with something like a sit-in is that people look from the outside and think, ‘Oh, look at these kids just whining when they don’t get their way,’ so you just have to be really clear about articulating how we have the information we need, we have the student support we need, and they’re just choosing to ignore it,” she said.

Raju later confirmed the group’s impending commitment to escalation.

“You can expect that you’ll be seeing more from Divest Dartmouth in the future, and that not everything you’ll be seeing is nice, cookie-cutter, ‘Look how great the College is,’” he said.

Yona, Rocchi and Raju all expressed respect for the Board of Trustees and Hanlon but emphasized their frustration and continued hope for action.

“I have the utmost respect for the Board members of the College and recognize that making a decision to divest or being the person who suggests it in that room can be one that carries some risk in terms of losing face,” Raju said. “At the same time, we sincerely hope that we can tap into the best parts of our Board members; the courage to be the voice that inspires change, to be the push for good rather than institutional tradition and inertia.”

The College did not respond to requests for comment.