Smith College resists petition to fully divest from fossil fuels

  • Divest Smith College student organizer Abigail Bernard, a senior, speaks Feb. 22, 2018 at a rally on campus to demand immediate action from the college administration on fully divesting from fossil fuels. In October 2017, a sub-committee of the Board of Trustees released sustainable investment recommendations, according to senior Sophie Meacham, who said this represents a "great first step" but continues to push for progress. "Fossil fuels are not sustainable and they will run out," Meacham said.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — As recently as a month ago, Smith College students marched on campus as part of a yearslong movement to get the college to divest from fossil fuels.

More than 200 Smith alumnae recently added to that chorus of voices when they delivered a petition calling on the college to fully divest.

“We believe that Smith College must align its money with its morals,” the petition reads. “Our investment choices should reflect the mission and values of Smith College, which include teaching the next generation of leaders about the importance of ‘stewarding the resources that sustain them.’”

That petition is the latest action in an ongoing battle over the college’s endowment investments. In response to divestment activists, the college’s board of trustees has previously balked at divesting money it already has invested in fossil fuel companies, instead announcing in October a set of recommendations trustees said support the college’s commitment to environmentalism and social change, as well as the health of the $1.8 billion endowment.

But Wednesday, in response to the student and alumnae activists’ demands, the board again rejected calls to fully divest, reiterating instead its investment committee’s recommendations to increase “impact investments” meant to generate both financial gain and environmental change, to favor certain funds and fund managers that have adopted those same principles, to avoid any future direct holdings in coal and to increase transparency on the endowment’s fossil fuel exposure.

“It’s not surprising, but I find it pretty reckless and myopic from them,” said 2016 graduate Gabriella Zutrau, who helped start the college’s divestment campaign when she was on campus and helped organize the alumnae petition. “The students won’t be backing off, and the alumnae will be escalating.”

The board’s recommendations are being implemented over a two-year period, during which the trustees have said they will likely not consider continuing requests for divestment.

“We believe the implementation phase (which you reference as a “hiatus”) is an important step in enacting and evaluating the four recommendations,” the board wrote Wednesday in response to the alumnae petition, which called for a cancellation of that two-year waiting period. “We do not plan to change it.”

Zutrau said that’s too long to wait.

“My first thought is, we don’t have two years,” she said. “The effects of climate change are really intense right now and they’re only going to get worse.”

College spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel turned down a request from the Gazette to speak to board members about the issue. “Members of the board are not doing interviews on this topic,” she wrote in a statement.

Activists at the college have said the board’s incremental changes are a good first step, but ultimately aren’t enough in the face of runaway climate change. The recommendations, for example, don’t necessarily mean that the college’s 6.2 percent fossil fuel exposure will even decline, and the board has only pledged to avoiding direct holdings in coal going forward.

“Our ask is essentially the same ask it has been from the very beginning: we want full fossil fuel divestment,” said Smith student Sophie Meacham, a lead strategist and administration liaison with the group Divest Smith College.

Firm objections

Another request of Divest Smith College and the alumnae petition was for the college to discontinue using the firm Investure to invest endowment money if that firm isn’t able to divest Smith’s money from fossil fuels.

Student activists at Smith have criticized Investure in the past, accusing the firm of being unwilling to prioritize divestment.

Those students aren’t alone. Barnard College dropped Investure when the college decided to divest from energy companies that deny climate change, as did Rockefeller Brothers Fund when it divested from fossil fuels. Investure pools customers’ money together in “commingled funds” making it difficult to exclude particular investments.

“If we can’t figure out a way to divest within Investure’s current system, we should also explore other options like Barnard did,” Meacham said.

In their responses last week to student and alumnae calls to reconsider Investure, however, trustees April Foley and Deborah Duncan wrote that moving away from Investure is unlikely.

“Investure understands Smith’s goals and is making progress on them, including the review of new impact investment opportunities,” the letters read. “Smith periodically reviews its relationship with Investure; the most recent such review took place in 2017 and resulted in a commitment to remain with the firm.”

In addition to calls to divest and ditch Investure, the alumnae also asked that the college “publish a financial analysis of potential divestment pathways and impacts, on par with those of our peer institutions like Barnard College.”

“There is no current plan to study other paths of climate action or divestment,” the trustees responded.

Zutrau said despite the disappointing news, the movement for divestment will carry on, adding that it took around a decade for activists to get Smith to divest from apartheid South Africa.

“Everybody wants more,” Zutrau said, criticizing what she said was the college’s “marriage to Investure.” “They really do put Smith’s reputation at stake.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

 This story was edited April 3 to reflect Zutrau’s correct final quote, where she criticized Smith’s “marriage to Investure.” The Gazette regrets the error.