Letter from Haverfordians for a Livable Future

To President Dan Weiss, Senior Staff, the Board of Managers, and the Haverford community,

Since December 2012, Haverfordians for a Livable Future (HLF; also referred to by our campaign name, “Divest Haverford”) has been asking Haverford College to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.  Specifically, in alliance with 350.org and the international fossil fuel divestment movement, we asked the school to first freeze any new investments in fossil fuel companies and then work to remove current holdings over the next five years. Last year, President Weiss and the Board of Managers announced to the school that they would not be pursuing divestment. They instead proposed several alternatives, including an increased commitment to carbon reduction efforts and the hiring of a Chief Sustainability Officer. While HLF strongly supports and encourages these decisions, we also believe that they are not enough. We can no longer deny the necessity to act on the issue of climate change. Our school must do more.

Despite what some may believe, the divestment campaign did not end when the first official “no” was published.  The history of past divestment campaigns at selective colleges – most notably in the case of South African Apartheid – demonstrates that most of the time, successful divestment campaigns receive at least one “no” before finally getting a “yes.” The larger fossil fuel divestment movement also continues to gain momentum. Since January of this year, divestment pledges have doubled. Over 181 institutions – including 14 colleges and universities – and 656 individuals which collectively control over $50 billion have now committed to divestment (see www.gofossilfree.org/commitments for a list of current pledges).  And within the Tri-Co, the editorial board of The Swarthmore Phoenix recently gave a resounding endorsement of divestment, arguing that “[o]ur peer institutions prove that it is, in fact, possible. Our moral compass proves that it is necessary.”

In his letter to the community on September 5th, President Weiss proposed that the school community “devote more thought to how we can approach conflict and disagreement as opportunities for growth and improving mutual understanding.” HLF agrees with President Weiss on this point. However, our experience with the Administration and Board of Managers thus far leads us – in the interests of mutual understanding – to contest certain elements of the divestment debate narrative that President Weiss put forward in his letter rejecting fossil fuel divestment.

Before we continue, we would like to stress that our concerns about how the Administration and Board have acted in the divestment debate thus far is not just about the issue of accountability, but also ensuring that the divestment debate can continue to proceed productively and in the absence of mistrust.  We recognize that there are legitimate concerns about the prospect of Haverford committing to divesting its entire endowment all at once, especially before more fossil free investment vehicles that fits the College’s current investment strategy become available, as they are likely to do so in the near future.  This is why we were revising our “ask” and told the Administration and Board as much even before the rejection letter was released. Unfortunately, what seems to us to be misleading behavior on their part has caused us to lose faith that the debate can proceed constructively without us first confronting them over this source of mistrust.

We regrettably do not have the space here to provide the full context and defense such serious claims demand, which is why we invite the community to come to an open forum held on October 30, 2014 at 7 p.m. in ehaus.  In the meantime, we will briefly summarize our main concerns as follows:

  • The Administration and Board justified their current decision based upon what appears to be cherry-picked data regarding the performance of one particular socially responsible investment fund in combination with limited analysis that focused on one unnecessarily expensive way of going about divestment.
  • At times members of the administration and Board have claimed that various alternative approaches to divestment were either infeasible or outright impossible, only for us to later find information later on that caused us to question the validity of such claims.
  • Most importantly, we believe that multiple claims made in President Weiss’s letter about the financial aspects of divestment are misleading or untrue. These include the ideas that divestment will necessarily require us to stop using commingled funds and would thus “result in a significant increase in the annual cost of managing the endowment” as well as the claim “that a portfolio that excludes a major asset class [i.e., fossil fuels] will under-perform a more fully diversified portfolio.” In reality, there are socially responsible investment funds that would allow the school to screen its investments for fossil fuel companies,  and the number of options continue expand as demand increases.  Similarly, numerous independent studies on the financial impacts of fossil fuel divestment have found little to no appreciable negative impact (and a few even find a small positive impact) on a portfolio’s performance.

We feel that when misleading statements like these were put into a public letter, this matter became a potential breach of the entire community’s trust.  Since Section 3.05 of the Haverford College Honor Code states that “[a]s part of the Haverford community, we are obligated to reflect on our own actions as well as the actions of those around us in light of their effect on the community and confront others when their conduct disturbs us [emphasis added],” we believe the Honor Code compels us to confront the Administration and the Board on this issue.  The Honor Code itself states that “confrontation should ideally take the form of a constructive, face-to-face discussion.” Since this breach of trust concerns the entire campus community, however, we have chosen to initiate this confrontation in this written, public format and to follow up with a public forum because the entire campus community needs to know. We want everyone to be involved in this discussion.

Finally, we want to stress that we recognize that we are making serious claims and that we do not make them lightly. We have only decided to do so publicly after substantial fact-checking of their assertions and reflection on the interactions we have had with members of the Administration and the Board. Similarly, we also want to emphasize that we intend for this letter to initiate a confrontation in the most strictly Haverfordian sense. That is, we seek to engender a restorative dialogue which, although challenging and potentially uncomfortable, ultimately serves as the sort of constructive opportunity for growth and understanding that President Weiss has described.

As the President wrote, “when it comes to the broad question of Haverford’s role in safeguarding our natural resources, community members on both sides of the divestment question likely have far more in common than they have disagreement. We look forward to continued productive partnership in navigating the best path forward for Haverford.” We too look forward to a continued discussion and partnership surrounding divestment, as well as a commitment for Haverford to work towards realizing the ideals of sustainability and climate justice that are so necessary to us all.

Sincerely,

Haverfordians for a Livable Future

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2 Responses

  1. E.G. says:

    Hi HC community! I want to reiterate that Havefordians for a Livable Future is hosting a forum to talk about this public confrontation. Please join us on Thursday, Oct 30th at 7 PM in ehaus (HCA 15 1st floor).

  2. Emily says:

    This is an incredibly smart and well put together letter. I hope that it sparks much needed discussion not only about divestment, but also about the common use by the administration of phrases like “mutual understanding” and “dialogue” to actually dodge hard conversations and choices.

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