April 3, 2014
In the most recent issue of The Spectator, Hamilton Divests published a letter asking the Board of Trustees to “begin divesting the College’s endowment from select fossil fuel companies.” Despite unanimous support from a faculty meeting on March 4, as well as almost 200 signatures, the Trustee Committee on Investments decided against divestment and published a response letter outlining their disinclination to divest on March 11. This letter included several convincing arguments, such as the “belief that it is likely better to have a voice in corporate conversations about responsible behavior than to withdraw from them,” and the idea that divesting funds would be using them to “achieve ends other than academic.”
Despite their sound reasoning, there are problems with the response’s two prevailing arguments. The first argument—that it is better to have a voice in corporate conversations—is the stronger of the two. With a seat at the table, Hamilton can encourage fossil fuel companies to look into alternative energy sources and to fight climate change. However, many of these companies are so deeply invested in fossil fuels that their policies will not change anytime soon. Despite the prevailing arguments for climate change, it is likely that most of these companies will go on producing fossil fuels for years to come. Therefore, divesting from these companies and derailing their success makes a bigger statement. Divestment would give Hamilton significant leverage over these companies.
The second argument—that divesting funds would be using them to “achieve ends other than academic” —also does not hold up. Decisions to divest from or invest in a company always have underlying intentions that go beyond pure academics. Hamilton’s investment in companies that are involved in fossil fuels shows that the College supports the intentions of these companies and is willing to help them succeed. Investment and divestment cannot be purely academic; they always have some sort of agenda.
Hamilton can take steps toward divestment without hurting its endowment significantly. Harvard’s endowment recently hired Jameela Pedicini as its first vice president for sustainable investing. Harvard and Stanford are the only top colleges to have full-time endowment employees devoted to divestment. While Harvard and Stanford are not close to complete fossil fuel divestment, these colleges have given this issue the respect it deserves.
Surely, the involvement of such reputable institutions in this cause makes it worthy of consideration at Hamilton. Rather than dismissing the requests of Hamilton Divests, the Board of Trustees ought to consider developing positions, like the ones at Harvard and Stanford. This way, Hamilton can make prudent decisions when it comes to investing in or divesting from fossil fuel companies. They will also be able to represent the large contingent of the Hamilton community that supports divestment.
With this issue coming to the forefront of the Hamilton conversation, transparency and information are important next steps. All members of the Hamilton College community have interests in this debate, since it directly affects the funding of the institution. However, many members of the community still do not understand the arguments for and against fossil fuel divestment. Information sessions, panels and debates should converge so the community may better understand this debate over the College’s funds.