Student group urges University to divest
The fossil fuel divestment campaign that has received national attention is starting to take off at Brandeis.
The University's chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future, a Boston-based organization that promotes sustainability and climate change awareness, held a meeting Thursday night to kick off its efforts to remove Brandeis' endowment funds from investment in fossil fuel companies.
SJSF, which falls under the Students for Environmental Action umbrella, drew about fifteen students to the meeting, where they screened an informational video on climate change, explained their goals and presented a timeline of protests and meetings with University administrators.
On a poster, next to the timeline, was written the ultimate goal: for "Brandeis to immediately freeze any new investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil fuels."
"It's really a great opportunity for us to come out and say, 'this is not okay, these companies are not okay, we don't want to have anything to do with them, we don't want our money to have anything to do with them," said SJSF member Dorian Williams '13 at the meeting. "Regardless of the effect of pulling out ... we don't want to be associated."
SJSF leaders met with Brandeis Chief Information Officer Nicholas Warren last semester to gather information about the University's endowment and how viable their goals would be.
Warren confirmed in an email to the Justice that Brandeis invests approximately seven to 10 percent of its endowment in businesses which "might be considered directly linked to oil and natural gas energy companies."
The exact percentage and list of companies is hard to pin down, he said, because this could include a varying degree of involvement with fossil fuels, depending on one's definition. Companies' mixed investments in renewable and nonrenewable energy make the distinction even murkier.
Brandeis does not invest in energy for this high rate of return, said Warren (24 percent in 2011, against the overall 19 percent, according to a Jan. 14 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) but rather to provide a buffer against inflation. However, should the University stop investing in these sources, "[the] next best options are much worse on either the return or the inflation protection," he wrote.
Warren was unable to give a clear prediction for the viability of Brandeis' divestment from fossil fuels.
SJSF members will push ahead with the construction of a "climate refugee camp" as part of a project for 'Deis Impact. The demonstration, which was created by SJSF and SEA and is set to begin with 'Deis Impact on Feb. 1, will include the construction of a shanty-town on the Great Lawn, representing the vast numbers of people that are anticipated to be displaced by the effects of climate change.
Students participating will also view a movie about climate change and possibly even stay overnight in the camp.
Immediately following the close of 'Deis Impact, hoping to build on the attention it will garner, SJSF leaders plan to schedule a meeting with University President Frederick Lawrence and pitch their ideas.
In April and May, as the academic year winds down, SJSF aims to have its more substantial goals in full swing, with a referendum question on the Student Union's spring election ballot to gauge popular student opinion on divestment.
Late last semester, SJSF began to circulate a petition in support of divestment that by now has about 650 to 700 student signatures, by club member Andrew Nguyen's '15 estimate. The vast majority of these are undergraduates.
Around this time, the group also plans to meet with the Board of Trustees to present its requests.
SJSF members hope that Brandeis will begin to divest by the end of this academic year. Should they meet resistance, the group has a number of protest measures in mind, including getting graduating seniors to pledge to withhold their senior gifts and reaching out to alumni for support.
A Brandeis investment policy adopted in 1973 states that divestment should be considered "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."
The policy lists examples, including "conservation and environmental pollution."
In considering divestment, its financial effect on the endowment "should be a relevant, but not necessarily controlling, consideration," according to the policy.
The fossil fuel divestment campaign is often compared to a similar movement in the 1980s for universities to divest their endowments from apartheid South Africa.
In a Feb. 19, 1986 article, the Justice reported that 85 percent of the student body (voter turnout unknown) favored divestment from South Africa.
While Brandeis did eventually divest in that case, the Board of Trustees at the time was "incredibly resistant" to the students' proposals, said Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC) in an interview with the Justice.
The deciding factor in the Board's divestment was students' threats to disrupt commencement, he said.
This past November, according to the Chronicle, Unity College became the first in the nation to divest from fossil fuels when it pledged to remove its $13.6 million endowment from the industry. Hampshire College also divested its $39.3 million endowment in December, according to the article.
"Until it was brought to my attention, it didn't even occur to me that Brandeis or other universities have money invested in polluting industries," said Fellman. "It's unconscionable."
When asked about the economic aspect of divestment, Prof. Michael Coiner (ECON) had low expectations for its actual financial impact, but allowed that a broader movement could be sparked through it.
"My guess would be that it would not hurt the University all that much (we would still be able to hold a rather diverse portfolio of other stocks)," wrote Coiner in an email to the Justice.
On the other hand, "any one college divesting would not have much effect on the energy companies," Coiner added. "[I]f we are to eventually change course on energy policy, it will probably take many 'small' efforts that might eventually add up to change."
Prof. Laura Goldin (AMST) took a similar stance on SJSF's campaign.
"I always applaud and support student efforts to call attention to ... environmental justice issues," wrote Goldin in an email to the Justice.
"I expect the reality is that divestment of Brandeis funds alone would make very little or no impact in the wider scheme of fossil fuel investment and financing." However, she added, it "could make a powerful statement, both about the critical importance of this issue and Brandeis's own strong commitment to social justice."
While SJSF members encouraged realism about their goals and the opposition they might encounter, they remained committed to the cause.
"We might not win this fight," said Williams at the meeting on Thursday. However, she added, "[Brandeis] should be leading the way."