Divestment plans analyzed during presentation
“The University needs to do something real … to engage the Board of Trustees and the new president to come up with a recommendation,” said senior lecturer in the Brandeis International Business School John Ballantine Jr. at a discussion of divestment on Thursday. The event focused on the facts, background and recommendations of the divestment report that the University’s Exploratory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment and the new Presidential Task Force on Campus Sustainability hosted last Thursday. The event featured four short presentations on climate change and the status of University divestment.
After a few minutes of refreshments, Senior Advisor to the President Peter Giumette introduced a panel of speakers, all contributors to the divestment report. The panelists included Ballantine; Eric Olson, a senior lecturer in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the chairman of the Newton Citizens Commission on Energy; Aneil Tripathy, B.A. ’12, M.A. ’15, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology with a focus in economic and environmental anthropology; and Michael Abrams ’15, a co-founder of Brandeis Climate Justice currently working as a staff legal researcher at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.
Ballantine began the event with a summary of the Exploratory Committee’s 174-page report — which, Ballantine joked, “five people have probably read” — and the presentation given to the faculty last year. He pointed to the University’s existing investment policy, which states that the University’s portfolio managers should only avoid purchasing a corporation’s securities when the corporation's conduct “is found to be clearly and gravely offensive to the university community's sense of social justice,” as a starting point to understand the issues involved in divestment. This is a relatively high bar, Ballantine argued, and there are a number of questions the University must consider before taking action against a corporation. Specifically, Ballantine said, the University must ask itself about the “impact of [its] investments,” “look at alternative investments” and “look at the overall carbon footprint … of the University.”
“What [the University’s investment managers’] charge is, of course, is to make money,” Ballantine explained. “The charge that they have is to make an above market return — an ‘alpha,’ we call it — and that then helps fund the University.” Ballantine explained that energy investment is one of the tools that investment managers use to reach that alpha, and that taking away this tool would create a constraint that could potentially have a considerable impact on the University’s investment returns.With the broader political and business angles of the issue covered, Ballantine moved on to the Brandeis divestment report’s recommendations. The report states that “Brandeis can divest its entire portfolio of the most polluting fossil fuel firms” and recommends that the University “pursue a more sustainable endowment as measured by comprehensive portfolio metrics.” Additionally, it suggests that “investment managers could track the risk and returns of its sustainable portfolio in comparison to more traditional investment options over extended periods of time” and calls for the University to “actively promote, measure, and encourage reducing the carbon footprint on campus.” Ballantine concluded that the University must take action against climate change. “This is part of a political and investment perspective. … Business as usual is not a responsible option.” From there, Olson continued the presentation, expressing a concern that the public — as well as investors — are deceived about the causes and impact of global warming. "There’s been deliberate efforts by the conservative elements in this company — including support from fossil fuel companies — to discombobulate Americans,” Olson said. “And they have succeeded.” In support of this claim, Olson cited a 2015 Yale survey reporting that only 56 percent of Americans say that global warming is happening and that only 56 percent of those who do believe in climate change believe it to be caused by human activities.
“Why,” Olson asked the audience, “are we so stupid? Why are Americans so uniquely, consistently confused among developed, wealthy, highly educated — presumably — nations?” In answer to this, Olson referred to a paper by Robert J. Brulle, “The Creation of U.S. Climate Change Counter-Movement Organizations.”
“It’s pretty clear that the CCCM organizations have really designed this propaganda machine that aims to support the conservatives’ advocacy of inaction,” Olson lamented. “Nearly a billion dollars per year is spent to maintain public confusion about the scientific understanding of the cause and urgency of climate change.”
This, Olson argued, is why divestment is necessary. "Divestment is about an obligation to counter the nefarious forces that have succeeded in perverting the dialogue,” Olson contended. “Brandeis … should lead. This country should lead. Instead, we are a disgrace.”
Olson then passed the floor to Tripathy, who began his presentation with a 1911 quotation from Justice Louis Brandeis: “There is no such thing, to my mind, as an innocent stockholder. … It is his business and his obligation to see that those who represent him carry out a policy which is consistent with public welfare.”
“What kind of an institution,” Tripathy asked, “Do we want Brandeis to be?” Of course, Tripathy acknowledged, “there are lots things that are valuable about an institution being able to run its day-to-day course — but … perhaps we need to re-evaluate.”
“The University must ultimately be guided by its social justice responsibility,” Tripathy said. In 2005, Students Taking Action Now: Darfur took divestment action against Sudan. In 1985 and 1986, students encouraged divestment from South Africa. In 2010, the Student Union created the Committee for Endowment Ethics and Responsibility.
For a recent undergraduate perspective on divestment, Abrams continued on to share his experience working on divestment. “Brandeis is ahead of a lot of other institutions in terms of responding to fossil fuel divestment.” However, what drew Abrams to the issue was the distance the University still has left to go. “Every community around the world is going to be affected by climate change,” Abrams said. “[Divestment is] a chance for Brandeis to take a step forward in the world.” What the University has to do, Abrams claimed, is set its priorities. “Is that little bit of money worth the social costs of climate change?” he asked. Studies have shown that endowments that have divested haven’t actually had much of a greater financial risk, Abrams said, and “divestment represents … this very clear political statement.”
After Abrams concluded his presentation, Giumette opened the floor to questions.