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Students, alumnae urge Smith College to divest its $1.77 billion endowment from fossil fuels



Laste modified: Thursday, November 26, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — An increasing number of students and alumnae are urging Smith College to divest its $1.77 billion endowment from fossil fuels, and say they are growing impatient with the lack of response from campus officials.

Meghan Kallman, a 2005 Smith graduate who lives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, contacted the Gazette on Tuesday to share a letter sent last month to administrators which was signed by more than 100 alumnae.

“Because of Smith’s legacy of empowering women of all backgrounds to make a positive impact on the world by creating an environment that is both fiscally and morally responsible, we find it unconscionable that the college retains investments in fossil fuels,” the letter states. “Funding the fossil fuel industry jeopardizes long term human health and environmental security. It is not in keeping with Smith’s legacy, nor with its moral imperative.”

In an email Tuesday, Kallman said she sent the letter on Oct. 8 to Smith President Kathleen McCartney’s office as well as other Smith officials, but had received no response.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Kallman said a representative from Smith had contacted her a few minutes earlier asking her to send her letter again. That followed a Gazette request for comment from the college by the about the divestment issue.

Smith spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel said in an email Tuesday the college had received and responded to the letter, but not as quickly as requested.

Schmeidel wrote that McCartney created a $1 million sustainable divestment fund and that Smith’s board of trustees recently established two groups to examine issues related to divestment. The first, an investor responsibility subcommittee, will examine the college’s investment strategy, and the second, a climate change working group, will evaluate the implications of college operations on climate change.

“These groups include representation from faculty, staff,students alumnae and trustees,” Schmeidel wrote.

One member of the investor responsibility subcommittee, current Smith senior Gabriella Zutrau, said she has been involved with trying to get Smith to divest from fossil fuels since she was a first-year student. Zutrau, 22, of Boston is a member of student group Divest Smith College.

She said Smith has previously divested from big tobacco and from companies that supported apartheid in South Africa, and that it should be possible for the college to completely divest from fossil fuels.

A question included on the spring 2014 ballot to elect class officers asked students whether they were in favor of divesting, and 84 percent of students were, according to Zutrau. The following spring, a student government resolution to divest from fossil fuels put before students received 87 percent support, she said.

“Mostly our administration when they have responded to things we have asked for, they try to redirect the conversation to on-campus sustainability,” she said.

Zutrau sees Smith’s commitment — the campus hopes to be carbon neutral by the year 2030 — as admirable, but added that the college needs to also cut off its financial ties to fossil fuels.

“We’re trying to get Smith to put its money where its mouth is and say we’re not going to explicitly fund the corrupt practices of this industry,” Zutrau said.

She said she was pleased when Smith decided to create the $1 million divestment fund, but called that amount a “drop in the bucket” in comparison to Smith’s full endowment.

As a member of the trustees’ advisory committee, Zutrau said she is critical of advice that Smith could lose money by divesting, pointing to research that shows portfolios that have divested have done better than ones that have not in the past 10 years.

Kallman said she got involved in the issue because she is concerned about climate change, which she called the biggest challenge facing humanity. In her letter, Kallman said she and other alumnae would not donate to the college unless it divests from fossil fuels.

“We understand that withholding this support has potentially negative consequences for those on financial aid,” the letter states. “However, the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis calls for solutions of comparable magnitude.”

Kallman, a scholarship student herself, said she knows that the generosity of others who went before her allowed her to go to Smith.

“We don’t take this lightly,” she said. “It is a heavy thing with heavy consequences, but this is the most sensible thing to do so the college will listen.”

Zutrau said her group is looking to find a philanthropic organization that could assist Smith with its financial aid budget as the college continues to consider divestment. She can be reached at divestsmithcollege@gmail.com.

Kallman, who encouraged other Smith alumnae to contact her at meghan.kallman@gmail.com, said her push to get Smith to divest comes from her commitment to the institution.

“This is a deep expression of loyalty,” she said. “I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t care.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.