Verbum Ultimum: Dartmouth's Disconnect

The College’s inconsistency toward sustainability is unacceptable.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/20/18 2:05am

 Sustainability has long been a major goal and a central subject of conversation at Dartmouth. Sustainability-minded organizations, communities, initiatives and opportunities on campus, many of which have been pioneered by the Dartmouth Sustainability Office, have made the issue highly visible. The efforts made on the part of the College and the students involved have not gone unrecognized: Dartmouth was ranked 10th in the Green Universities Report last year by, a Texas-based energy consulting firm. The report stated, “At Dartmouth College, sustainability isn’t just a campus initiative — it’s a way of life.”

It certainly appears that way. The multitude of student initiatives and opportunities for experiential learning have given students the ability to take the issue into their own hands and generate real impact. The administration has made its intentions clear — last year, the Office of the President announced, “President Hanlon has called on Dartmouth to play a leadership role in improving global sustainability and overcoming the challenges of climate change.” On Earth Day of 2016, President Hanlon stated that “energy is one of the most pressing issues of our time,” and announced the appointment of a Sustainability Task Force dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and make headway toward transitioning to renewable energy sources.

These clear statements of good intentions on the part of the administration, coupled with the pervasiveness of student activism for sustainability, demonstrate that’s insight that sustainability is a way of life at Dartmouth might just be hitting it on the mark. However, behind the scenes, the administration may not be making decisions that align with their very public dedication toward sustainability. On Feb. 8, the College’s Board of Trustees disclosed 26 holdings in their U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission Form 13F filing, revealing that the College holds shares valued at $66,615,000 from the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Explore & Production exchange-traded fund.

Investment in companies dedicated to exploring new fossil fuel reserves nullifies, if not reverses, the efforts of all the student activism that has taken place on this campus. More importantly, these recent investments contradict the proclamations and commitments of senior administrators on the matter. Such a decision does not align with the goals or efforts established by the College, nor does it align with the goals of many of its students. These recent investments further conflict with the efforts established by various administrators and College affiliates over the past few years. The College cannot placate criticism of its investment strategies by publicly committing to efforts it lacks the institutional will to carry out. Simply put, Dartmouth must put its money where its mouth is.

If Dartmouth is to be the leader in global sustainability it ostensibly aspires to be, the administration’s actions must embody the values of the student body and orient accordingly. The College’s 2017 endowment report stated that one of the College’s main interests lies in finding global investment opportunities with “superior return potential,” and that the Investment Office was aware of the risks that may come with such a position. If the College wishes to surrender itself to the allure of high-returning oil stocks, it cannot expect its commitments to sustainability and environmentalist values to be taken seriously. What Dartmouth risks in investing in fossil fuels is its integrity, both toward the cause of sustainability and toward the students and alumni the College committed itself to.

These recent developments echo another controversy in the spirit of putting one’s money where their mouth is: the origins of The Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society. This initiative was financed for the most part by $113 million in contributions, most of which came from Irving Oil, Ltd., The Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation and the Irving family. The Irving Institute’s mission is to be a “leader in transforming humankind’s understanding of issues at the intersection of energy and society, and a driver in the creation of ideas, technologies, and policies that will improve the availability and efficient use of energy for every person on the planet.” The careful wording surrounding the mission of The Irving Institute is no accident; what the Irving Institute’s website fails to mention about its donors is that Arthur L. Irving was the chairman of a company that caused significant environmental damage. While there is merit in the mission of the Institute, Dartmouth’s acceptance of what many might call dirty money is a signal that the values of the College are only as valuable as the highest income stream. Thus far, the administration has put money where its purported values lie –– in sustainability. The contradictions of The Irving Institute, however, are emblematic of a College that is not steadfast in its convictions. Is it wrong for students and alumni to be worried?

There is no doubt financial logic in the College’s rising investments in stocks and capital pools affiliated with unsustainable energy ventures. But if the College pursues that strategy, it cannot keep hiding behind cautious platitudes and lip-service. The administration would be well-advised to be forthcoming in its intensions and priorities, and defend them however it sees fit. Colleges and universities, however, are beholden to values higher than simply their bottom line; this is especially true for an institution as storied and well-off as the College. If Dartmouth is to truly follow through on the commitments it has made, it has an obligation to scrutinize the influence of financial interests contrary to the values of its community. The administration subsequently has a responsibility to transparency with its students and a duty to consistency in its investments, acceptances of donations and its public initiatives. Dartmouth cannot continue with such a disconnect between words and practice, whether that be directly between student organizations or behind the scenes. 

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.