Louis D. Brandeis: abolish the Board of Trustees

May 3, 2019

Divestment does not go far enough; we must divest ourselves of the Board of Trustees. Each day our community does not act, climate change becomes ever more irreversible, our university profits off of a principally objectionable ravaging of our world, and the momentum needed to bring about change is lost. At the margins, some members of our community, particularly those prone to tacitly accept misinformation and appeals to authority, are under the impression that Brandeis University is a leader in combating climate change on university campuses. I, Louis D. Brandeis, have risen from the dead to share one final opinion, both to add to the present discussion about fossil fuel divestment and to offer a vision for the future of Brandeis University.

An opinion piece published in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hoot titled “The case against fossil fuel divestment” really presents a case against the worst form of divestment. Intrinsically, divestment brings attention to the reality that climate change is real and that the responsibility to take action to mitigate this harm lies on relatively privileged communities. Such action should not be understood to be universally costly. One study from The Journal of Portfolio Management found sin taxes “unambiguously outperforming common benchmarks in terms of both magnitude and frequency.”   

Somehow we are still talking about fossil fuel divestment while colleges and corporations around the world have moved on to bigger and better things. According to gofossilfree.org, over 150 educational institutions around the world have already committed to divestment. Go Fossil Free lists Brandeis University as an institution divesting only from coal.  Anything less than full divestment affirms institionaly complicity. Many schools are taking this energy even further, but we are still debating fossil fuels. Yale University, for example, has already committed to divesting from assault weapons retailers. Hopefully this serves as a reminder that being named after someone does not mean you have lived up to their name.

Our community should be and is angry that our endowment is complicit in funding climate change. The reason we have to consider opportunity cost with respect to university fossil-fuel divestment is precisely because a cost has been created.

The only cost intrinsic to this action is marginally lower returns on stocks. The benefit, other than satiating our collective moral conscience and awareness, is similarly subject to change at our discretion. Such funds could be earmarked for stocks which advance Brandeis’ mission of advancing social justice. That is probably a little too social-justicey for Brandeis, but I hope it highlights the freedom we have to actualize divestment in positive ways; or, at the very least, the freedoms we should have.

The Board of Trustees’ infantile foot-dragging is deceiving the campus community, feigning recognition of the divestment movement on campus, intentionally scheduling board meetings during the summer when most students are not on campus. Article X of the Board of Trustees bylaws makes clear that Student Representatives to the Board are neither Trustees nor voting members.

“Truth, even unto its innermost parts” demands that we turn to evidence to determine the extent to which these practices are undemocratic. The Brandeis University Exploratory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment states “The majority of the Committee advocates that Brandeis strongly considers divesting its holdings in fossil fuel firms. Student consensus and robust faculty concern suggests that continued investment in fossil fuels presents a fundamental tension with Brandeis’ proud tradition of social justice.” To practice social justice, we must act upon such recommendations. Let’s not forget that the Chair of the Brandeis Board of Trustees, Meyer Koplow ’72 represented tobacco companies and even told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he could not answer the yes-or-no question “do you believe the truth of proposed warnings on cigarette packaging?”  If you are feeling especially cynical, feel free to watch this moment (linked in the online article), which starts at about 01:40:00 and recall what you will about the Gilded Age.  

But the Board of Trustees is not democratic. It is an oligarchy at best and a plutocracy at worst. If this entity lived up to the values of Brandeis, perhaps there would be more important issues to take up than abolishing the Board. At present, the Board of Trustees represents the single gravest threat to the world which we, members of the Brandeis community, can do something about. We must shift the conversation to one which demands immediate change, rather than accepts piecemeal concessions. I, in my personal capacity, believe this is the first step.

Egalitarians of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your privilege!

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