Fossil fuel divestment remains a central topic for students, faculty, administration and trustees entering the fall semester. A June statement from Liebowitz places a Board of Trustees vote on the matter in November. They are expected to vote on an updated version of the “Brandeis University as a Responsible Investor” document in September and use it to guide the November decision.
The struggle over divestment, the removal of university endowment funds from investors that support fossil fuels, goes back more than six years. As early as 2013, Brandeis undergraduate students voted in favor of a ballot initiative to divest. In 2015, students and faculty formed an exploratory committee at the request of former President Lisa Lynch.
The committee produced a 170-page report that asked board members to divest the university’s endowment. Instead of encouraging fossil fuels by investing in the fossil fuel industry, according to the report, the university should invest in greener, renewable forms of energy.
Since 2015, the Board has met with members of Brandeis Climate Justice (BCJ), most recently on Jan. 31, to discuss the reality of divestment, each time deciding not to vote on the topic. BCJ continued to push the importance of the issue. Last semester, on April 27, members of BCJ gathered for a climate justice rally. They stood in front of the faculty building and read a public statement to demand action. President Liebowitz and board member George D. Krupp met the students on the Faculty Club steps to announce that the Board of Trustees would vote for or against divestment within 60 days.
“If you just give us a little bit more time, we’ll come up with something that’s satisfactory to not only Brandeis but also to the student body,” Krupp told students at the time.
At the Alumni Reunion in early June, BCJ alumni circulated a letter urging the Board to meet the June 23 deadline. A few days before the deadline, President Liebowitz and the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Meyer Koplow, released a statement saying that a vote would not occur before the 60-day limit.
Instead, according to the statement, members of the Board would evaluate and reconsider “Brandeis as a Responsible Investor,” a document first drafted in 1973. The “broad, general and vague” document would need to be edited before a vote could take place. Over the summer, members of the Board have worked to review the guidelines, Ira Jackson, the senior vice president for communications and external relations, confirmed.
President Liebowitz’s statement highlighted the core conflict at the heart of the issue. Brandeis may want to divest, but it must re-invest in options that ensure stability for future students and faculty. “The board has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the university’s endowment—to produce the greatest return with the lowest possible risk—in the interests of current students, faculty, and staff, as well as future generations. At the same time, it must do so in a responsible manner.”
If the Board follows the timeline set in the statement, it will vote to approve or reject a new “Brandeis as a Responsible Investor” document in September, just after the start of the fall semester. “While no one can accurately predict in advance what the board might do, if it votes to adopt new socially responsible investment policies in September, the intention is for the board to then consider specific recommendations regarding the divestment of fossil fuel investments in light of the revised general policies at its full meeting in November,” Jackson wrote in an email to The Brandeis Hoot.
BCJ coordinator Claudia Davis ’19, said that the order of actions doesn’t matter. According to Davis, it is important to update the university policy, but the university shouldn’t “drag its feet” on a vote either. “A policy like that is really important for a school that claims to be a social justice institution. If we want to hold ourselves to that standard, as being a university that educates students that are building a stronger and more inclusive world, we really need to be constantly re-evaluating our standards.”
After failing to meet the 60-day deadline that the Board set for itself, BCJ delivered a statement to President Liebowitz’s office. Part of the statement read, “This is a pivotal moment in time when our institution has the opportunity and the privilege to deny power to the fossil fuel industry and secure the safety of your students, your children and future generations.” The statement urged the Board to set deadlines and keep to the deadlines.
One of the most empowering aspects of the campaign to divest, according to Davis, is the comradery felt from students at other universities pursuing the same cause of action. According to Fossil Free Divestment, a campaign to divest all organizations from fossil fuels, 903 institutions are currently in the process of divesting funds. The United Nations partially funds Principles for Responsible Investment, which requires signatories to commit to responsible, “greener” investing. Harvard University, the University of California, Simon Fraser University, Loyola Marymount and Northwestern University have all signed the PRI.