Divestment & Disagreement

Posted by Quinn Martin

Skidmore's recent foray into a more serious divestment process and the trials and successes therein has been well documented. A brief review of other college's sustainable efforts helps to put Skidmore's environmental efforts in context. It is from observing the various sustainable efforts that other institutions of higher learning have implemented and the results of those sundry endeavors have that we are best able to learn where we're succeeding and where we could be doing more. Looking at the opposition many colleges and universities face while attempting to divest indicates that there's a substantial rift between undergraduate concern surrounding climate change and administrative action.

While divesting from fossil fuel companies is the largest stride a campus can make in order to reduce their carbon footprints, there are many other factors that determine the impact that a campus makes on the environment. The "College Sustainability Report Card" notes that Skidmore does well in eight out of nine various categories, garnering A's and B's. However, in the "Shareholder Engagement" category, we obviously suffer, earning a D.  

The explanation for Skidmore's poor mark in Shareholder Engagement is a single, scant sentence: "A member of the college administration determines proxy votes". This category judges how colleges go about their shareholder proxy voting process, which allows an institution to vote on shareholder resolutions that could potentially make positive environmental impacts.  Perhaps what's most disturbing is that this problem isn't unique to Skidmore-approximately 51% of all colleges who submitted data to "The College Sustainability Report Card" garnered a grade of D or F in the Shareholder Engagement category.

In order to go about rectifying this problem, perhaps we should take a look at a school that's doing this right. Oberlin earns an A grade, as they've formed a comprehensive committee comprised of five students, one faculty member, one administrator, and one college staff member that makes suggestions to the college's board of trustees. Oberlin values the input of its student body, and its proxy voting process represents the multi-faceted concerns of the entire college community. This kind of collaboration and transparency is what we need as we go forward: students not only bring concerns to the administrations, but work with the administration in order to make a change.

Unfortunately, no matter how much the student body pushes, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the administration. Hopefully the higher-ups value divestment as much as we do. Recently, Bates' student body saw a very similar student-driven push towards divestment. The Bates Energy Action Movement (BEAM) drafted a petition to the Board of Trustees that called for  " [divestment from] corporations engaged in the extraction and refinement of coal." In January of this year, the president vetoed the movement, stating that divestment would harm the college's endowment, resulting in: "... a reduction in resources [that] would affect critical college priorities, including financial aid, faculty and staff salaries, and support for academic programs. In short, divestment would potentially threaten core aspects of the college's mission". Why are learning and living suddenly mutually exclusive?

At this point in Skidmore's venture towards divestment, we've been relatively lucky. The administration appears to value student input, and be open to working towards a mutually beneficial goal. Perhaps the largest question that I have is why so many "liberal" institutions of higher education rely on fossil fuel companies that are far from socially and environmentally responsible. On October 3rd of last year, Drew Faust, the President of Harvard University argued against divestment, stating that the endowment existed as a tool to ensure that future students were well educated, not as "an instrument to impel social or political change." A similar statement was issue by Christina Paxson, President of Brown University. These chilling sentiments remind us that undergraduate ideals are often met with opposition. Students need to be engaged in every step of the decision making process. For us, this may mean more transparency in the form of a student presence in the making of shareholder decisions. All we can do now is stay vigilant, and hope that we're allowed to practice what we preach. 

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