Members of Brandeis Climate Justice (BCJ) gave a presentation to the Board of Trustees urging them to divest from fossil fuels, one year after the Exploratory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment recommended full divestment in their 2015 report.
BCJ students also held a rally in the atrium of the Shapiro Campus Center while the trustees met upstairs.
The push began in April of 2013 when a referendum revealed that 79 percent of students were in support of divestment. Then-President Frederick Lawrence formed the Exploratory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment. The committee released a report of its findings 2015.
The 173-page report includes facts and data that exemplify the growing environmental threat that fossil fuels pose. “Choosing not to act on this global issue would represent a failure of the University to live up to its social justice principles,” the report said.
The report considered the difficulties involved with divesting endowment shares in fossil fuels. The main point of contention is whether divestment will diminish the endowment. The report states, “The Brandeis Investment Office estimates that full divestment of fossil fuels could reduce annual returns up to 2 percent, or $18 million.”
Neither group denies that divestment may have a negative effect on the endowment. The problem is determining how much of an effect it will have. The exploratory committee cites findings that differ from those of the Brandeis Investment Office. They found, “A 2013 report by the Aperio Group revealed that by excluding the 15 most harmful fossil fuel companies a portfolio only increased risk by a negligible 0.0006 percent. Furthermore, entirely excluding the fossil fuel industry from a portfolio increases risk by only 0.0101 percent.”
Michael Abrams ’15 was part of the exploratory committee which published its findings in 2015. He attended the meeting with fellow BCJ members. He is optimistic about working through economic disagreements. “It’s just a question of doing the research to show that this doesn’t pose a risk to any student and in fact it will strengthen the endowment and ultimately make us more money,” said Abrams.
The Board of Trustees did not respond to the report when it was released. The March 31 meeting is the first time that BCJ has met with board members. The goal of the meeting was to present the reports’ findings to the board members in the hope that it would open up a dialogue. Cassie Cain ’18 is a member BCJ who spoke with board members at the meeting. She feels that the conversation is one that has to be had. “[I]t’s not a question of if we’re going to divest—but when, because in 50 years we might be forced to,” said Cain.
BCJ hopes to meet with the board again and have their decision by the end of the semester. Between five and ten board members attended the meeting. Members from the Office of Investment Management also attended. “We want them to present our ideas to the rest of the trustees,” said Cain.
The meeting began as a presentation, but attendees eventually broke into smaller discussion groups. It was in these groups that members of BCJ were able to speak one on one with administrators and trustees. “There was room for more engagement. We could have delved a bit more deeply into the details of divestment,” said Abrams. Cain reiterated this sentiment, stating that the meeting, “could have gone worse and it could have gone better.”
During the meeting, members of the BCJ and supporters held a rally. The purpose of the rally was to demonstrate student belief in divestment. “We wanted to show that [BCJ] is not a fringe group at Brandeis, that there is student support,” said Cain. Between 15 and 20 students attended the rally.
The dialogue escalated at times. There were arguments between BCJ members involved in the rally and Board of Trustees members. However, according to BCJ members, the overall sentiment of the meeting was positive. Abrams emphasized the importance of opening a dialogue with board members. “There are lots of issues on campus. A lot of student groups don’t feel listened to by the board and I feel very lucky that we were able to have this meeting,” said Abrams.
As of now there is no set date for a follow up meeting or decision from the Board of Trustees. BCJ is optimistic that a date will be set in the near future. “One of our main goals was to set the stage for further conversations about divestment and about Brandeis’ response to climate change,” said Abrams.