The students involved in Wes, Divest!, a group pushing for the University to cut off its investments in fossil fuel companies, hope to foster change on both the local and global scales. By divesting its endowment from companies that contribute to climate change, group members argue, the University will stay true to its commitment to sustainability.
The group has gained momentum since last semester, when it began circulating an online petition outlining why the University should move toward divestment. The petition, addressed to President Michael Roth and the Board of Trustees, has so far gained the support of more than 350 signatories.
“We believe that this is not only a financially secure decision for the endowment, but also a moral imperative considering the implications global warming has on human rights,” part of the petition reads. “We also believe that such an action would set a powerful precedent encouraging other campuses across the country to divest as well.”
Roth clarified his views on Wes, Divest!’s position and what steps would need to be taken for the University to engage in a debate over the future of its investments.
“We have talked a little bit about it in the Investment Committee,” Roth said. “What I’ve said to the students with whom I’ve met is that the best thing to do is to work through the Committee for Investor Responsibility. I think it would be good to have something in writing, a memo of some kind, that explains the rationale for changing our investment policies in this regard.”*
Wes, Divest! has been active since last spring, but so far most of the group’s time has been spent accumulating numbers and finding its footing. Near the end of last semester, however, the group started to take more direct action, which culminated in a conversation with Roth in which, according to Maya McDonnell ’16, an active member of Wes, Divest!, the President made his hesitations clear.
“One of Roth’s main arguments against divestment is that we don’t need to politicize our endowment,” McDonnell said. “The main problem with that argument is that any kind of investment is political; it’s fiscal support no matter how you look at it. It’s political no matter what, so it’s best that it’s political to represent our Wesleyan student body.”
This past Sunday, the group made its first real push for administrative involvement by proposing a Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) resolution calling for the discontinuation of additional fossil fuel investment and gradual divestment from the most offensive fossil fuel corporations within the next five years.
When creating this resolution, members of the group said they were careful not to diminish broad support with something too radical.
“It’s not going to be an immediate thing,” McDonnell said. “One of the prime arguments that [the administration] have is that [divestment] can be bad for us economically, so to test the waters and make sure that’s not an issue, it needs to be a slow process.”
While members say they are optimistic about the upcoming resolution vote, they remain skeptical about the administration’s response and see the resolution as an important part of an ongoing discussion.
“I think the resolution will pass, but the Board’s going to shoot it down,” McDonnell said. “The purpose of this resolution is to show that students support this movement. It’s also a doorway to more communication with the resolution. They’re probably not going to give us a yes, but they probably will give us more reasoning behind their arguments against divestment.”
Transparency about the use of endowment money is another major concern of Wes, Divest! Non-members of the Board of Trustees are only able to see some of the University’s endowment sources.
“We’re only given access to five percent [of the endowment’s direct holdings],” McDonnell said. “But within that, we know we have at least two direct holdings in two of the worst 200 companies, in regards to fossil fuel.”
Knowing the profiles of endowment sources allows students to determine the ethics of certain companies.
“We know one of them, Tech Resources, does tar sands, Alternate Energy does mountain top removal, which Wesleyan has taken a stand against,” said Angus McLean ’16. “So from that we can extrapolate we have a very large portfolio in fossil fuel investments, considering that the head of the investment committee worked for a firm that specialized in fossil fuels.”
This is not the first divestment controversy at the University. Between 1978 and 1990, groups across the world, including many Wesleyan students, called for the withdrawal of assets from all companies associated with the South African policy of apartheid. During one Wesleyan rally on April 18, 1988, 110 students were arrested by Middletown police while protesting outside of North College.
Although Williams College recently rejected a divestment proposal of its own, other organizations have concluded that divestment is an economically feasible and worthwhile pursuit. Some New England schools such as Maine’s Unity College have already passed motions to initiate divestment. Even some major cities have become involved in the effort: both Seattle and San Francisco pledged to fully withdraw the roughly half a billion dollars they invested in fossil fuel sectors.
“We have studies that show this is a very possible thing to do without hurting our endowment, and in the long run it could actually be a possible thing for our endowment, since we’re definitely going to run out of fossil fuels, and green energy is going to be huge,” McDonnell said.
Beyond the WSA resolution, Wes, Divest! has channeled efforts into other related programs. The group recently became approved for SBC funding, in addition to receiving support from the Green Fund to send 13 of its members to Power Shift, an upcoming environmental conference in Pittsburgh, Penn. for activists across the country.
“This is the defining issue of our current generation and all generations that are alive right now, so within a certain time frame—five years, ten years, fifteen—all colleges, I’m one hundred percent certain, are going to do this,” McLean said.
Pierre Gerard ’15, a senior member of the group, said the divestment movement revolves fundamentally around the argument that students should have a greater say in how the school’s funds are used.
“I talked to a professor recently who said the biggest change in the past 20 years is that students have stopped being stakeholders in university decisions,” Gerard said. “I think it’s time we changed that.”