Greg Dennis: College fails to lead on divestment

Middlebury College has made enormous contributions to the well-being of Addison County. That’s all the more reason why its hasty decision not to divest out of fossil fuel companies “at this time” is so puzzling.
The college contributed most of the financing for the new Cross Street Bridge. It has also announced its willingness to donate more than $6 million toward substantial improvements to downtown Middlebury. The latter arrangement, if approved by town voters, would result in a new park, a new municipal gym and town offices, a better entrance to the keystone Marble Works property, and the potential for more downtown parking and a larger library.
But the college trustees’ unfortunate and misguided decision not to withdraw its investments from fossil fuel companies could have a far greater — and destructive — impact.
Until this decision, the college has been an enormously influential leader on climate change issues. Not just in Vermont or the United States, but all over the world.
That’s in large part because 350.org was founded at the college and has, in five short years, become the recognized nonprofit leader on the best ways to stem climate change before it cooks the planet.
But the college has for now ceded its own leadership position. It’s thrown in with the received “wisdom” that it’s just too chancy and complicated to divest the 3.5 percent of its $970 million endowment that’s invested in oil and natural gas companies.
The college trustees apparently fail to understand that the times have changed, yet again. As the climate crisis deepens, there’s a new litmus test.
In a summer when the president of the United States has urged citizens to invest and divest, it’s not enough anymore to burn wood chips, throw up a few solar panels, and call yourself green.
It’s places like little Green Mountain College that are leading now, gaining recognition from Sierra magazine as one of the top 10 environmental colleges and attracting nationwide attention for divesting.
When 350.org launched the divestment movement, knowledgeable observers looked again to Middlebury College for leadership.
So the board’s announcement was a big body blow to one of the most promising campaigns aimed at changing the way we think about energy production.
The trustees’ decision is one more reason to wonder if our national elites are up to addressing the challenges of climate change. Or if they will just pass the buck to the generation now in high school and college — and hope it’s not too late for the kids to do something about it when they graduate.
Those of us who have been urging the college to divest, in public and in private discussions with college President Ron Liebowitz and individual trustees, are guessing the decision was led by the trustees and was not directed by the college president himself.
Liebowitz welcomed the divestment debate and engaged the community in several public forums. As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said to this newspaper, “I admire Ron Liebowitz tremendously, and I look forward to the time when his trustees enable him to make a statement more consistent with the core values of the college.”
Examining the college statement, it’s obvious that the drafters found themselves in a defensive crouch.
For starters, they issued their anti-divestment proclamation nearly two weeks before classes begin — a clear sign they wanted to avoid student protests over the announcement. (The swift response from students and alumni showed that to be a vain effort, anyway.)
The college statement questioned the practical effect of divestment. Would it “cause companies to change their business models or behaviors?”
But no one has said it would do that, not in the short run. Coal companies don’t make solar panels and never will: They destroy ecosystems to mine a substance that melts the ice caps.
“What costs would divestment impose and how would it affect investment returns?” the college asked. It answered that question not by open inquiry. It replied by turning away from the growing body of evidence that the college would in fact do better financially without fossil-fuel stocks.
“Would divesting from companies in the fossil-fuel sector open the door to future requests for the college to divest from other areas of the economy that some might find objectionable?” the college statement asked.
This is truly the weakest of objections. Heaven forbid the college should have to function in the real world, that it should consider the moral and ethical impacts of its decisions.
This objection also ignores history — including the lengthy debate that preceded the trustees’ eventual decision to divest out of companies that did business in apartheid South Africa. (The board’s apartheid decision, by the way, came only after a rare student sit-in at Old Chapel.)
Much of the college statement was devoted to complaining how hard it would be for the institution to divest, because its investments are pooled with other institutions through Investure.
Yet at the same time, the college pledged to “increase significantly the amount of the endowment directed toward” environmental, social and governance principles.
Left unanswered is this obvious question: If the college can significantly increase that kind of investment, why can’t it just go ahead and divest?
Well, apparently it’s because it’s making so much money with Investure right now. And money is, you know, money.
Pro-divestment students, in their elegant response, shot down the trustees’ excuses. The students said in part:
“Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, ‘In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.’
“We received the president’s statement on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As people continue to suffer from environmental racism and injustice, as the climate crisis grows more dire, we cannot afford to ignore reality; we cannot afford to be late. We must be early; we must lead. We must push ourselves and our peers to take further action, even when the path presented is not the easiest choice.
“Middlebury has embraced this challenge in the past, and we must continue to work for a livable planet,” the students wrote. “The bottom line is that this is bigger than the $970 million of our endowment; this is about the future of life on this earth.”
The students concluded: “We hope to continue working with the administration in this process, but we wish to make clear that we will continue organizing until divestment is achieved and our finances no longer contradict our mission of ‘integrating environmental stewardship into our curriculum and our practices on campus’ and promoting peace. By choosing not to divest, we continue to actively support the destruction of our planet and decrease the likelihood that we will have a future on it. This is not a choice we will allow our college to make.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email; [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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