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CISR to give recommendation on divestment by end of October

A handful of students affiliated with the student group Divest Haverford met with the Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility (CISR) last Thursday to discuss options for making Haverford’s endowment fund more environmentally responsible.  Later this month, CISR plans to make a formal recommendation on divestment to the Board of Managers.

“I think I’m speaking for all the students when I say we are really invested in finding options that meet our interests and the interest of the Board [of Managers] and interests in other college stakeholders,” said Eve Gutman ’15, a leading member of Divest Haverford.

Divest Haverford is a student-run organization aiming to “gradually steer Haverford’s investments away from environmentally destructive fossil-fuel companies.”  Since last year, the group has joined a nationwide movement of students lobbying their colleges to divest their endowments of fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, who produce CO2 emissions that contribute to global climate change.

For these students, the hope is that divestment today will encourage institutions to, down the road, invest in less destructive companies that do not rely on fossil fuel emissions for revenue.

The Board investment committees at both Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore have cited high costs to the endowment and low impact on the fossil fuel industry as reasons to avoid immediate divestment as a course of action.

Cheryl Holland, Bryn Mawr’s Investment Policy Subcommittee Chair, said in a letter sent to Bryn Mawr students in August that “to divest…the College’s direct private investments in oil and gas partnerships within the next five years would force the College to take, at minimum, an estimated $10 million loss on these investments.”

Holland also said that divestment would deny Bryn Mawr a “seat at the table” that the college could use to discuss alternative energy options with fossil fuel companies.

Four months earlier, Chris Niemczewski, Swarthmore’s Board Investment Committee Chair, said in a meeting of Swarthmore’s Board of Managers that divestment would cost the college $11.2 million in the first year, and up to $203.8 million over ten years.

With the two other Tri-Co schools turning down divestment, does Divest Haverford have a hope of convincing its own Board to divest? The Clerk sat down with Gutman for an interview after the meeting with CISR on Thursday.

Q&A: Eve Gutman ’15 of Divest Haverford

Roza:  Where is the divestment campaign right now at Haverford?  What progress have you made and what goals do you have for the future?

Gutman:  Conversations about this campaign started in the fall of 2012, and the campaign as a group of people kicked off in the spring semester of 2013, so we’re just in our second semester and the first semester was a lot about getting our grounding…that included things regarding recruitment and awareness about our existence and also reaching out to key administrators, board members and certain committees through meetings and letters to establish ourselves.  We have a relationship with the [CISR] from last semester and we’re interested in continuing that relationship through meetings like this and figuring out what steps we can take together that are short term steps while divestment stays on the table as a long-term goal.  A lot of doors need to be opened for divestment to become a feasible option at this school.  I think this is a really good school for conversations to be had between student groups and administrators and I’m really excited about that.

Roza:  Have the administrators you’ve been talking with been receptive of your ideas?

Gutman:  I would say that our relationship is mostly on common ground and when it comes to divestment itself we’ve heard mixed things.  I don’t want to say that it’s been negative, because not only is it positive in terms of “we want to talk with you” but it’s also been positive in terms of “we want to help you figure out how to get action done at this school.”

Roza: Many critics of divestment argue that it is not a cost-effective form of activism.  What do you say to those critics?

Gutman: Divestment isn’t just about taking our money out.  It’s part of a plan in which we reinvest our money…reinvesting in alternatives in terms of energy or in terms of more equitable banking options makes a really big financial impact because those organizations and corporations are smaller. One option that we can pursue this semester is called Green Revolving Fund; it’s when the college has a pool of money and lends it out for environmental projects that save money in the long run and those savings go back into the fund so that the fund continues to grow.  Harvard has one and Seattle University has one and they both have incredible returns because it’s a real process of saving money from reducing consumption.  Another option on the table right now is the Special Fund built into our endowment in which alumni could make gifts that will not be invested in certain industries.

Roza: Many college boards have publicly refused to divest…

Gutman: Yeah, a lot of schools have recently gotten no’s from their boards, including Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr and Middlebury.  But getting a no from a board isn’t the end of a campaign.  Historically, student campaigns have gotten no’s and have escalated and that can lead to some great successes.   From the letters I’ve read from the boards of different schools, there’s a concern that an endowment that has been divested from fossil fuel companies will have smaller returns.  That’s problematic to me because financial projections are u  nreliable.  We can’t know how fossil fuel companies are going to do in the future just because they did well for the past five years.  That’s not how financial markets work and it’s not an honest way of figuring out how to make a lot of money.  Some boards have said, “This is going to cost us this much money.”  And other people have said, “No, this board’s figures are wrong.”

It is true that a single school divesting will have no financial impact on the [fossil-fuels] company.  The companies have already sold their stocks and who owns their stock doesn’t really impact them.  But divestment is a national movement of over three hundred colleges.  There’s a lot of power in having this be part of a national movement.  Divestment has been shown in the past to have symbolic and political impact…those companies that were invested in tools of apartheid didn’t leave South Africa because investment hurt their profits, they left because the divestment movement affected the American government in a way to influence them.  That’s where the real power of divestment comes from.  A lot of Board members are not convinced by that.  Having concerns are valid because the endowment is really important to our institution and that’s why we’re invested in having all options on the table.  I think if we recognize it’s a long process, we’re being realistic.

Roza:  Do you have any events planned for raising awareness with the students and trying to get more momentum that way?

Gutman: We started the semester thinking of having a very large event at the end of the semester.  When we were told by CISR that they were going to make a recommendation to the Board that was big news to us, so for the past two weeks that’s what we’ve been thinking about…and as a result the big event has been on the backburner.  I would really like the group to be spending time in leadership development this semester.  This campaign’s a really long campaign and it’s important to give people those skills to have a solid campaign that doesn’t just flicker out.  One goal [we have is to empower more students to grow together to be better activists.  I think the next step would be preparing for what to do once that recommendation has been made and then how to approach administrators and students in light of whatever the recommendation is.  Campaigns are broad arcs…divestment is the long-term goal, and the fact that we’re having these conversations with CISR is good that’s coming out already.  Exploring these other options is good that can come out on the short-term and medium-term.  We’re getting there; it’s a long process.