After Board of Trustees vote on divestment, advocates push for more

November 30, 2018

The Board of Trustees adopted new investment policies related to fossil fuels in a November meeting with President Ron Liebowitz, according to a campus-wide email sent Wednesday. In interviews with The Brandeis Hoot, campus advocates for divesting university funds from the fossil fuel industry said the new policies are a good first step but do not amount to full divestment.

Brandeis will no longer directly invest endowment funds in companies and partnerships whose “principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation,” according to an outline of the policy provided in Liebowitz’s email to the Brandeis community. The email stated that there will be an increased effort to invest in renewable energy sources and technologies.

The policy changes will allow some existing investments referred to in Liebowitz’s email as “fossil fuel private limited partnerships” to continue through their typical life cycles but will suspend any new investments in such partnerships for three years. These partnerships account for approximately five percent of Brandeis’ endowment, according to Liebowitz.

The policy will not divest Brandeis endowment money from “commingled funds that contain fossil fuel investments, because to do so would be imprudent and place the financial well-being of our endowment in jeopardy,” according to the campus-wide email from Liebowitz. Commingled funds are funds with several assets from different accounts blended together.

The changes to policy outlined in Liebowitz’s email come after years of pressure from students and faculty who have urged the Board to divest endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry.

Earlier this week, Brandeis Climate Justice (BCJ), a student organization which has advocated for divestment from fossil fuels, gathered the signatures of 215 students and 39 campus organizations in an open letter addressed to Liebowitz and the Board of Trustees. The letter urged the board to vote “yes” on divestment from fossil fuels.

BCJ said that the policy changes did not amount to a “yes” by the Board of Trustees.

“I think that the compromise the board reached represents a really significant step toward full divestment which is, you know, our ultimate goal,” said Claudia Davis ’19, a member of BCJ. Davis pointed to the commingled funds which still contain fossil fuel investments as one place where the Board failed to meet the full demands of those advocating for divestment.

According to the email from Liebowitz, there will be a review of the actions instituted in the new policy after three years.

“I would say that the board failed to meet that sense of urgency and that sense of care for the issue,” Davis said. “My estimation would be that in the next three years, given just what this fall has been in terms of international news around climate, I think the next three years is going to get really serious in terms of the science we’re seeing, the devastation that we’re seeing, and the policy that we’re seeing.”

Phoebe Dolan ’20, another member of BCJ, told The Hoot that the policy response from the Board, “was a reflection of collective student power.” She noted BCJ’s six-year history as an organization advocating for divestment. “For a campaign that’s been lasting six years it’s really exciting to see the kind of student support that turned out,” she said.

Davis said that following the decision by the Board, divestment has received a lot of attention on campus. “Everyone on campus was talking about the letter and the vote yesterday,” she said, “a discussion of this length on fossil fuel divestment wouldn’t have happened a year ago.”

“I’m really looking forward to putting more pressure on the Board and building a stronger base of students who are aware and passionate about the climate crisis and are able to really make clear the urgency of climate change,” Davis said.

Advocates of fossil fuel divestment among Brandeis faculty also described the new investment policies as a step in the right direction, but an incomplete response to climate change.

“What President Liebowitz and the Board have come forth with is a meaningful first step; it will become meaningless if students, faculty, administration and alumni don’t follow through in keeping the pressure on,” said Charles Chester (ENVS), a member of a faculty group called Faculty Against the Climate Threat (FACT).

Another member of FACT, Paul Miller (NBIO), told The Hoot, “Our goal is clearly 100 percent total divestment from all fossil fuels but we realize that this can’t happen right away in one step, so as far as this is a step in the right direction, that’s great.”

Other faculty noted the change in the university response to calls of divestment.

“Just getting a statement so immediately after this meeting I think is really encouraging and you have to hand it to the administration that they have finally responded after so many years of not getting a clear response,” said John Ballantine (IBS), who served on the Exploratory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment in 2015. “The real change is President Ron sort of saying this is a serious issue, we should deal with it, and Lisa Lynch who’s sort of saying ‘how do we deal with this.’ So internally there’s been a tremendous change on the Board of Trustees and investment committee to take that step.”

One faculty member said the move by the Board of Trustees was not enough.

“To me, though I greatly respect who has spoken in more moderate and grateful terms, it seems to me that it is one great step for Brandeis and one infinitesimal baby step for the climate,” said Mary Baine Campbell (ENG), “given that what I really care about is whether my nieces and nephews and my godchildren and me in my old age and the human race survives, doesn’t seem to be very satisfactory given the reports of the last two months, the size of the problem and the two plus years we have left for fixing [climate change].”

Liebowitz is scheduled to meet with The Hoot next week. An official statement from BCJ is forthcoming, according to the group’s Facebook page.

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