Divestment, the Wesleyan Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR), and Wesleyan’s Endowment’s relationship with oil and gas are three confusing and often misunderstood topics. We, the Co-Chairs of the CIR, are here to clear up some confusion about these concepts, and introduce some news.
What is Divestment?
While the concept of divestment might feel relatively new, it has a much longer history than one would think. The origins of divestment can be traced back to the “disinvestment” movement of the 80s, in which universities in the U.S. were pressured by students to sever ties with companies benefiting from the South African Apartheid.
Since then, divestment movements have become far more common, addressing ethical concerns within different industries. We’ve seen this most notably with the tobacco industry, the private prison system, and the fossil fuels industry.
The fossil fuel divestment movement materialized primarily on college campuses in 2010. Students globally began to call for the move of Endowment portfolios away from oil and gas and toward renewables and social impact funds—investments that they thought reflected the ethical values of the student body.
Over the past 10 years, the market climate towards fossil fuels has not been positive or capable of generating reliable returns. COVID-19 has also sped up the shift to green energy. Universities and investors are looking to divest from fossil fuels not only out of an essence of being a good Samaritan, but because there is also a lot of uncertainty concerning whether fossil fuels are a viable investment in the long term.
Who are we and what is the Committee of Investor Responsibility?
There is only one Committee for Investor Responsibility (CIR). It was created in 2007, as a way to organize interested stakeholders in a discussion around arms manufacturers. The students were founding members of this group. It can be composed of faculty, alumni, staff, and a group of six to seven undergraduate students. During the pandemic, only the student members have been meeting regularly.
While there are not two separate CIR’s, the student members of the CIR (us!) meet weekly, and serve to express and represent student opinion regarding matters of investment, generally through proxy votes for companies that are direct holdings in the endowment. In recent years, the student CIR members’ focus has adopted an Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) lens when discussing the Endowment. We believe that the Endowment should strive to be what Wesleyan strives to be: sustainable, ethical, and grounded in equality and social justice. When we refer to the CIR in this article, we are referring to the students within the CIR.
When we speak of investment or divestment, it’s important to note that the Investments Office is the only Wesleyan institution that has full knowledge of the investment philosophies and holdings of the Endowment’s current fund managers. We have limited knowledge of the names of fund managers with whom the University is invested as a result of privacy concerns.
What’s Wesleyan’s history with fossil-fuel divestment? And how is the CIR involved?
Conversations about fossil-fuel divestment began in 2012, when WesDivest was established by students. In 2013, WesDivest started a petition which directly urged President Roth and the Board of Trustees to strip the Endowment from all fossil fuel related holdings within the next five years. The petition had around 500 digital signatures. That same year, WesDivest collected another 700 signatures, this time handwritten.
That same year, the first divestment resolution was passed in 2013 by the WSA, asking the Investments Office to maintain a more transparent relationship with the Committee for Investor Responsibility and cease any new investment in the fossil fuel industry.
The CIR wrote a report in 2014, that pointed to the poor returns on coal, oil, and gas. That year we also conducted a joint school-wide survey with the WSA. Of those that participated (one-third of the student body), 90% agreed that “the University has a moral obligation to address issues of climate change.” For the calendar year ending in 2014, the Endowment did not own any coal, and oil and gas returned negative 19%. In light of a lack of communication between the Investments office and student body, the CIR was under the impression coal was still a part of the Endowment.
In 2015, we presented another proposal to the Wesleyan Investment Committee—this time with WesDivest as a co-sponsor that focused on divestment from coal. The 36-page divestment proposal outlined a multidimensional perspective on divestment with the following: 1) the scientific case for existence of climate change, 2) the social and environmental costs of global warming, 3) the financial risks taken from continued investment in carbon-based fuel, 4) pre-existing institutional moves made toward divestment the U.S., 5) an overview of the precedents set by government regulation, 6) a summary of the current support for divestment on campus, and 7) a realistic plan for divestment coal.
In response, the Board of Trustees issued a statement noting that they will consider ESG factors as part of their investment process. This was a meaningful action because it was the first time the Wesleyan administration had publicly acknowledged the environmental concerns of the student body. But nothing was done in the way of divestment. In fact, shortly after President Roth published a blog post which stated the University’s reliance on energy companies.
“The idea that we would divorce ourselves from energy companies through divestment seems inappropriate given our use of power from these companies every day,” Roth stated. “Selling our shares of an energy company to another institution or individual will not have a meaningful impact on climate change.”
After this long and infuriating lack of action and response, we were thrilled to see the divestment debate re-emerge on campus within student groups in 2018. WesDivest reformed and more protests occurred.
In 2019, we drafted and passed a resolution that separated the WSA Endowment from the Wesleyan Endowment. With the University Endowment still having some exposure to fossil fuels, the resolution marked one of the first financial moves, enacted directly by the student body, that distanced Wesleyan’s student finances from the fossil fuel industry. Read more about this issue can be found in a 2019 Letter to the Editor written by Tatum Millet ’19.
Unsurprisingly, the student-governed fund has seen remarkable returns depending upon social impact funds. For instance, the Brown Advisory Sustainable Growth Fund (BAFWX), which the WSA is invested in, has seen a remarkable 15.16% growth rate over the past 8 years.
Any new updates?
During a recent meeting, April 8, 2021, with Anne Martin, Chief Investment Officers, and Brett Salafia, Director in the Investments Office, we had the opportunity to discuss the future of fossil fuels within Wesleyan’s portfolio. When Martin began working at Wesleyan in 2010, asset classes in oil and gas were around 10%. Each year since then, this position has continued to decrease. Going into the meeting, this fact had not been communicated to us earlier. Based upon the information we receive each year, the University’s direct security holdings (which compose less than 5% of the Endowment) continued to see some exposure to oil and gas between FY2019, FY2020 and FY2021. We were concerned that, in light of COVID-19, the desire and pressure on the University to divest fully from fossil fuels may have been forgotten about.
In light of President Michael Roth’s “Campus Updates on Environmental Sustainability” letter to Campus on March 5, 2020 following a recent Board of Trustees meeting, there had been little communication or updates between students, the Administration, and the Investments office to understand what progress was being made towards the divestment from fossil fuels. Roth’s email to the entire student body, faculty, and staff stated a few of its intentions for divestment progress.
“At its most recent meeting on Feb. 29, the Wesleyan Board of Trustees discussed how to better align endowment investment practices with the University’s broad sustainability efforts…” Roth’s email stated. “There was broad agreement among Trustees not to make new fossil fuel investments and to wind down current investments in this sector as quickly as possible while minimizing the negative impact to the value of the endowment. The University will be divested from direct fossil fuel investments by the end of the decade.”
In our recent meeting, we were able to clear up some misinformation between the CIR, the student body, and the Investments Office.
Martin and Salafia have confirmed that the Endowment’s total exposure to fossil fuels is less than 2% and that the Endowment should be fully divested from fossil fuels by 2030.
In our conversation, we offered the Investments Office a number of proposals as to how the student body could offer oversight in ensuring Wesleyan’s portfolio is divested from oil and gas as quickly as possible. For one, we considered the creation of an ESG index that would rank the University’s direct security holdings and fund managers in terms of their environmental impact, social standards (such as the composition of board of directors, pledges to equal employment opportunities, and company-wide initiatives to address systemic racism), and reviewing the corporate governance of companies. We also suggested the Investments Office draft a statement on their ESG investment thesis. and how the office will continue to ensure the fund managers selected have a clear understanding of Wesleyan’s sustainability goals. While privacy concerns do not allow the student-led CIR to sit in on quarterly meetings regarding the Endowment, we will continue to push for the inclusion of student voices at Investments Office meetings through the CIR.
At the end of our conversation, both Ms. Martin and Mr. Salafia noted that they were happy to work on other ESG approaches with us. They stated that it is a rapidly evolving and important area for Wesleyan.
So, is Wesleyan’s Endowment divested?
Yes, and no. We are ahead of most New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools on this issue, and generally on the same track as Middleburry and Smith who announced divestment a couple years ago and ahead of others like Williams and Hamilton who have not decided to divest. Wesleyan’s Endowment should be fully divested from fossil fuels by 2030. The reason divestment cannot happen all at once is that the Investments Office must wait for contracts with fund managers to expire, or otherwise face an early withdrawal penalty that would hurt the Endowment.
What’s next for us?
As two people who have been working toward divestment for a while, we’re thrilled about this, but we’re a bit hesitant to celebrate it. Our work is far from over.
While fossil fuels make up “just” 2% of our Endowment, it’s important to note that that 2% amounts to around $20 million USD. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the student body for a swift and complete divestment from fossil fuels over hopefully a shorter timeline.
It’s frustrating to talk in economic terms—to seemingly only support divestment or investment of certain areas because of their financial return. We all know the trillions of reasons why we need to shift far away from any sort of oil and gas investment and none of the important ones are because of money. But universities always speak in economic terms, so in order to be successful in our goal, we must speak in such terms well.
There is a saying often put forth by the Investments Office and University administrators when conversations concerning divestment of the Endowment become uncomfortable. It generally sounds something like, “divestment will hurt the Endowment and in turn reduce financial aid, which harms students.”
Yet, now we can say that such a statement holds little merit. The statement largely fails to consider that ESG funds and the divestment from fossil fuels has proven, as in the case of the WSA, that divestment is a financially viable solution, that ESG funds are viable sources of returns.
The student body as well as the CIR must continue to hold the administration and Investments Office accountable. Our goals of achieving divestment from fossil fuels are within reach, but why stop there? It is time to re-invest in historically marginalized communities and support funds and companies that have plans in place that offer solutions to the systematic racism and inequality plaguing the United States and the world. We want to work with the student body to amplify voices and ensure the Investments Office is aligning with the interests of Wesleyan students. The time is now to identify positive and socially responsible fund managers and companies that can not only make the world a more ethical, greener place, but that can also generate large returns to the Endowment as a whole.
The CIR recently published a full report drafted by the Environmental, Awareness, and Finance arms of the committee. To read our full case for supporting the divestment from fossil fuels, and how to ensure future efficacy in the Endowment, please look out for the WBR’s latest edition or our public access Google document.
Sanya Bery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Natalie Selfe can be reached at email@example.com.