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Brandeis Climate Justice rejects President Liebowitz’s divestment plan

On Friday, Oct. 10, President Ron Liebowitz sent out a school-wide email, titled “Advancing and deepening Brandeis’ commitment to sustainability.” The lofty announcement came weeks after schools like Harvard and Boston University publicly shared their own divestment plans. While Brandeis students have been pushing for fossil fuel divestment since 2012, the strategic timing of the University’s announcement clearly indicates its fear of not advancing social justice at the same pace as neighboring universities. As Brandeis scrambles to uphold the weight of being a “social justice institution,” let us not conflate this eagerness to announce divestment with an eagerness to make structural change. 

 

In his email, President Liebowitz details a remarkably vague and conservative response to climate change. He asserts that “Brandeis has long been at the forefront of making firm commitments and taking concrete steps toward addressing climate change.” We, the members of Brandeis Climate Justice, ask how the University has honored this long commitment when Brandeis’ divestment campaign will celebrate a bittersweet decade-long anniversary in 2022, still fighting for the same demands that students were pushing for in 2012. It is true that in 2018, President Liebowitz announced the Board’s decision to make “no direct investments of endowment funds in public or private companies or partnerships whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation.” Three years later, President Liebowitz further suggested that Brandeis’ remaining fossil fuel investments “will continue to be liquidated as they run off in accordance with their normal life cycle.” It is not made clear how long this process will take, a point that is important considering how little time humanity has left to phase out fossil fuels. Simply waiting for these investments to expire is not the same as divestment. In fact, the word “divest” is never once mentioned in President Liebowitz’s email. While President Liebowitz does state that fossil fuel investments comprise only four percent of Brandeis’ portfolio, it is not clarified what exactly this includes. It is entirely possible that this does not take into account fossil-fuel-related investments which fall outside the specific category of “fossil fuel private limited partnerships.” The Board also claims that the most recent divestment announcement is simply part of a reassessment process with regards to these funds that have run their course. President Liebowitz refers to these as “ambitious policies”—quite a claim, given Brandeis’ discouragingly slow response to a true divestment plan.

 

While Brandeis’ divestment history may feel disheartening, we must remind ourselves that it is the students who hold power in academic institutions. It is the students who are paying exorbitant amounts of money. It is the students who will donate thousands of dollars as alumni. It is the students that produce content for the University to proudly show off in recruitment advertisements. When we show our disappointment, even our anger, to Brandeis, the administration and the Board realize how much they need us. Remember the student occupation of Ford Hall? What about the Vietnam protest and sit-in? Let us not forget the momentum that students have to create institutional change. The university is here to serve us. With that, we demand the following:

  • Divest direct holdings immediately 

Brandeis has direct shares, or a direct percentage of a company that the school owns. Brandeis has more control over their power to divest from these companies, given that shareholders of direct shares can invest or divest at the drop of the dime. Furthermore, these shareholders have the power to vote for the company’s board members, which gives them even more moral power. 

  • Divest indirect holdings within 3 years

Indirect holdings, meanwhile, are a fractional interest in company stock. Some examples of this are mutual funds or exchange traded funds. We ask for a three year time limit because we acknowledge that certain funds may have a longer contract in which it is inadvisable to divest from the holdings before the contract expires. However, we feel that three years is more than enough time to plan for the financial changes that may take place from an indirect holding divestment. Therefore, we demand that Brandeis divest from their indirect holdings within three years, because the price we will pay for the climate crisis is far higher than the price Brandeis will pay for breaking a contract early. 

  • The Board of Trustees releases a written statement to never invest in the fossil fuel industry again

Although this demand may appear to have been achieved in President Liebowitz’s email, stating “Brandeis will extend its policy, first adopted in 2018, of not investing in fossil fuel private limited partnerships,” the Board did not specify what is considered a fossil fuel investment. Are we still going to invest in banks that support pipelines? What about pipeline companies themselves?  

 

In the document Brandeis University as a Responsible Investor General Guideline,” adopted by the Board of Trustees in April 1973, the Board firmly lays out the basis for our argument of fossil fuel divestment:

“Where a corporation’s conduct is found to be clearly and gravely offensive to the  university community’s sense of social justice and where it is found that the exercising of  shareholder rights and powers is unlikely to correct the injury, consideration should be  given to selling that corporation’s securities. Due regard should be given to both positive  and negative conduct of the corporation in such areas as:  

(i) hiring, employment and pension practices;  

(ii) relationships with oppressive governments;  

(iii) product safety and consumer health;  

(iv) extent and nature of military contracts;  

(v) conservation and environmental pollution;  

  (vi) participation in charitable, educational and cultural life of the community.”

  • Create a community resource committee of students, alumni, faculty and staff by Spring 2022 to investigate, pursue and achieve investment in socially responsible funds by 2022

What makes a fund socially responsible? This is not the first time Brandeis has grappled with these definitions. Also in the “Brandeis University as a Responsible Investor General Guideline,” the board admits that “it is difficult enough to reach agreement on what particular policies are ‘good’ or ‘bad’; the difficulty is greatly compounded when it becomes necessary to further decide whether, considering a corporation’s activities as a whole, it should be ‘praised’ or ‘censured.’” Thankfully, BCJ has acquired a collection of socially responsible reinvestment materials, which can be found here

 

Establishing a committee on socially responsible investment by 2022 must be done swiftly and equitably. We recommend the involvement of all departments at Brandeis, in an attempt to include as many opinions and experiences as possible. 

Students, faculty, staff, the Board and the President must all be included equally in the decision making process. 

  •  President Liebowitz meets with student and faculty to discuss current plan 

Those who have concerns and demands should be able to meet with President Liebowitz and discuss their ideas and recommendations. If Brandeis truly wishes to uphold its social justice standing, it must afford to the community the same transparency that is readily available to the Board. 

 

Students have been fighting for divestment for years, and the Board of Trustees has been unsatisfactory on all accounts. We need transparency and a committed offer with input from students and faculty immediately. Time for this action is running out. As young people who have inherited the problems caused by those who came before us, we demand to be directly involved with Brandeis’ decisions on this front and for our demands listed above to be met. We are not interested in long-winded emails that aim to keep up appearances, especially when President Liebowitz claims this to be Brandeis’ year of climate action. We demand transparent action that meets climate justice needs immediately.

 

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