Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees, under the advisement of the Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR), approved a resolution on Saturday, Feb. 28, to consider “environmental, social, or governance factors” as a part of the University’s investment process. This resolution was brought about in response to the CIR’s proposal for the University to divest holdings from coal companies.
The CIR, a committee comprised of students, faculty and staff, conducted research that concluded that divesting from coal would not negatively impact the University’s endowment. The CIR also worked in conjunction with Wes, Divest!, the student group campaigning for the University to divest from all fossil fuels.
Joel Michaels ’18, a current member of the CIR, said that divestment could reflect the University’s principles of progressiveness.
“We shouldn’t be [placing] profit over things that would be overly harmful to our surrounding communities, or to the world we’re trying to improve as a University,” Michaels said.
According to Michaels, the CIR serves as a mouthpiece for the student body. As a result, they were an avenue through which Wes, Divest! could go to pitch the idea of divestment to the administration. After surveying the student body last fall, the CIR realized that fossil fuel divestment was a pertinent issue on campus.
“The result [from the survey] was that there was a lot of interest in fossil fuel divestment on this campus,” Michaels said. “We had some meetings with [Wes, Divest!] and they presented their case. But ultimately we were the ones who wrote the proposal.”
According to Mira Klein ’17, a member of both the CIR and Wes, Divest!, the two separate entities that were able to help each other out to get to this place.
“The proposal would not be as effective as it was, if not for the groundwork that Wes, Divest! has done over the past two and a half years in terms of bringing this issue to campus,” Klein said.
Maya McDonnell ’16, a member of Wes, Divest!, feels that the resolution was frustrating as Wes, Divest! was looking for more of a commitment towards divestment.
“For the most part we definitely think it’s a positive thing, we’re really excited about the CIR’s opportunity to present to the board,” McDonnell said. “It isn’t a commitment at all, and there is no real backbone to this resolution, but we’re hoping in the future, some more concrete commitments could come out of this responsibility that they’ve now recognized.”
A reservation amongst the Board of Trustees, whose job is to maximize returns to the University, is how divesting will endanger the University endowment.
“I think that people often expect that it will really endanger our endowment, but in reality if you divest responsibly and divest over a fairly long period of time, using really effective strategies, that’s not necessarily the case,” McDonnell said.
The CIR also engaged in research regarding coal divestment and through this, concluded that divesting from coal would not negatively impact its endowment. Their proposal included recommendations for the University to not have any future direct holdings in coal. However, the University did not promise to complete divestment.
At this point in time, the University has no direct investments in coal but the resolution serves as a framework for more considerations in the future of the social impacts of investments.
The CIR believed that the positive impact of divestment could extend beyond the financial implications.
“It’s not the financial divestment itself that is important, it’s that a university that is visible in the public light and exists in a place of a somewhat moral high ground can make a big difference and a big media splash when it announces divestment, and that’s what we want the University to do,” Michaels said.
Wes, Divest! is still pushing for further divestment. Members are hoping for full fossil fuel divestment, but the resolution that was pitched by the CIR was mainly about coal divestment.
“The resolution that was passed by the Board is not at all what Wes, Divest! is asking for: it doesn’t make any public statement about divestment, it doesn’t make a call that divestment is a necessary action that the Board is taking, so it’s neither symbolic nor actually moving money,” Klein said.
Throughout the coming months, the CIR will be engaging in conversation with the Board of Trustees in order to draft language and pass something more substantive in the future.
On Thursday, April 16, members of Wes, Divest! participated in a sit-in of University President Michael Roth’s office in South College, organized by the newly-formed Coalition for Divestment and Transparency. Over 40 students from various student groups called for the divestment of direct holdings from the prison-industrial complex and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as well as from the fossil fuel industry.
Wes, Divest! hopes for a commitment to divestment from the University administration, even if this is be a long-term plan.
“We’re not calling for immediate divestment, we’re calling for an immediate commitment and an immediate plan to begin the process of divestment,” McDonnell said. “This can be done over a long period of time in order to maintain responsibility and maintain the endowment. The administration often has many concerns on how it will impact financial aid and the money has to come from somewhere, but this is definitely feasible without hurting the endowment.”