Students and trustees debate fossil fuel divestment

By Nathan Livingston ’14 and Mark Parker-Magyar ’15

During Fallcoming, a small group of students met in Sadove with the Trustee Committee on Investments to discuss fossil fuel divestment.  Their intention was not to attempt to scandalize the school, but rather to open a dialogue that would include a student voice. These students had previously attracted the attention of trustees through discussion and were invited to meet with the committee.

Divestment is by no means a new concept to Hamilton College.  In 1986-87, the anti-apartheid divestment campaign was blazing its way through the universities of America.  Students at Hamilton waged an impassioned campaign for divestment from South African companies on ethical grounds.  They constructed shanties and lived in them as a sign of solidarity with those abused by apartheid, a radical and empathetic act of protest.  In the spring of 1986, the trustees said “no” to divestment and destroyed the shanties in front of the Chapel and McEwen by force.

The next semester, the divestment group had a more immediate clash with the administration.  Twelve students occupied the President’s Office with the same demands: divest from South Africa.  The students, although polite, would not be moved.  The president at the time, J. Martin Carovano suspended every student.  The suspension was contested in court and by the time the matter was resolved the students had graduated.  President Carovano resigned the following year.

This past weekend, the committee said that they passed a divestment program during the anti-apartheid movement enforcing the Sullivan Principles (business codes of ethical conduct).  The actions of students had a direct effect on the behavior of this school.  It acted less like a business and more like a community.

The current fossil fuel divestment movement does not seem to be heading in this more protest-oriented direction.  Instead, it seeks to open a dialogue with the trustees, voicing an opinion that may in the long run be the best decision for Hamilton to make.

Divestment is not designed specifically for fossil fuel dependency, but its methodology does put a variety of pressures on its target.  The strong media frenzy that accompanied the anti-apartheid movement helped to end the atrocity by urging companies, colleges and cities to refuse to invest the money necessary to keep that government afloat. By placing pressure on such institutions, divestment generates media and financial pressure on the industry or nation it is focused on.  The students argued that this is an opportunity for Hamilton to be a leader among the NESCACs and the community of elite institutions around the country.

The trustees understandably want to spend the College’s endowment carefully.  However, according to Mike Kendall ’14, “the committee members welcomed our opinions and arguments while offering their own input,” for a whole hour.  There are a number of trustees on the committee who are interested in divestment but are unwilling to commit because of a lack of faith in the economic viability of divestment.

The committee ultimately gave the students a task: research and recommend alternative energy investment funds and money managers that perform as well or better than the current money managers that Hamilton employs.

Their willingness to talk, in conjunction with students’ knowledge and passion for the issue, led to a discussion and a think-tank rather than an argument.  The attending students respected the trustees’ caution about placing the College and its endowment at risk. It is a positive sign for the divestment movement here that the trustees were willing to listen and encourage the students to take a route that they would endorse.

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