‘A never-ending fight’: The long history of Brandeis’s divestment movement
Brandeis’ commitment to sustainability for the Year of Climate Action reignites questions about another climate initiative at the University — students’ long and arduous fight for fossil fuel divestment.
As Brandeis celebrates the Year of Climate Action this year, another important climate campaign at Brandeis observes its ten-year anniversary — the fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Although Brandeis Climate Justice, the student group that led the campaign, has not been active since spring 2022, the divestment movement plays an integral role in the history of climate activism at Brandeis. According to an Oct. 22, 2012 article in the Justice, Students for Environmental Action first launched the campaign — then known as “Divest for Our Future” — in the fall of that year. The group’s initial plans called on the University to “freeze any new investments in the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies,” as well as to “phase out all direct and indirect holdings” during the following five years.
The divestment campaign at Brandeis was one of many spearheaded by college students across the country in 2012. Many occurred in response to author Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” published in Rolling Stone August of that year, in which he suggested that college students could help prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels by demanding that the institutions they attend divest from the fossil-fuel industry. 350.org, a climate organization that McKibben co-founded, also launched the Go Fossil Free campaign that called on institutions across the country to divest.
Divestment, or pulling financial investments out of morally questionable or ambiguous sources in the context of a movement, was not a new idea. Paved by the successes of divestment movements around apartheid in South Africa and the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel divestment campaign reportedly grew more quickly than any other divestment campaign. As of Feb. 2, over 1,557 institutions have divested a total of $40.51 billion, with most of these institutions being faith-based and educational institutions, according to the Global Divestment Commitments Database.
At the time of Divest for Our Future’s formation at Brandeis, the University had about 7-10%of its endowment invested in fossil fuel companies, according to a Jan. 29, 2013 article published in the Justice. The campaign had its first major success in April 2013, when the vote for divestment appeared on a Student Union referendum and passed by 79 percent.
The vote to divest led to the formation of an Exploratory Committee in the summer of 2013, which was comprised of students, faculty, staff, trustees, and administrators who intended to study the implications of divestment for the University. In April 2015, the committee released a 170-page report that concluded, “Student consensus and robust faculty concern suggests that continued investment in fossil fuels presents a fundamental tension with Brandeis’ proud tradition of social justice.”
BCJ steps up
Throughout the course of its history at Brandeis, BCJ, which was officially chartered as a club in 2014 and became the figurehead of the divestment campaign, used a variety of tactics to encourage the University to divest. One of the most frequent tactics BCJ adopted was rallies, which often disrupted Board of Trustees meetings taking place on campus.
In a Jan. 18 interview with the Justice, BCJ alum Jordan Mudd ’20 cited the protests BCJ held during the April 2018 Board of Trustees meetings as being one of the most influential moments of the divestment movement at Brandeis. “Having face-to-face conversations and playing the inside game is important for sure, but at the end of the day, the Board and any sort of institutional organization like this … they will respond more to pressure that you put on them,” he said.
As a result of the rally, board member George D. Krupp and President Ron Liebowitz committed to a 60-day deadline to formally vote on divestment. Mudd emphasized the importance of striking a balance between holding rallies and “[building] inside relationships and [having] conversations with people who are decision-makers.”
In January 2018, BCJ presented at a Trustees meeting — Mudd's first time doing so. “Prior to that [the meeting], we talked about the Board of Trustees as an entity,” he said. “But once you get in the room, you realize this is … a couple dozen different people that all have their different opinions and different values.”
On Jun. 22, 2018, just one day shy of the 60-day deadline the Board had established in April to vote on divestment, Liebowitz sent an email to the Brandeis community stating that the Board had been unable to reach a decision. In November of 2018, Leibowitz released a statement about the University’s policies surrounding fossil fuel investment. In the statement, the Office detailed new policies such as ceasing direct investments in coal, suspending new investments in fossil fuel private limited partnerships for three years, and investing in renewable energy. Liebowitz said the University would review the impacts of these changes and “consider future action” in three years' time.
In their breakdown of the University’s letter, BCJ suggested that this was by no means true divestment, and that many policies were in fact intended to slow student power rather than support it. “We must continue to build our power over the next three years to ensure that the University continues to stand with the future of their students and the planet,” the breakdown stated.
BCJ alum Zoe Pringle ’22 reflected on the club’s frustration with the push-pull of divestment momentum and shutdown. “It felt like a never-ending fight … it was kind of known by the end that the Board just wasn’t going to freaking do it,” she said. “He [Liebowitz] is not going to say anything legally binding or meaningful at all. He just feels like he has to say something because he knows these students are so passionate, and in some semblance of a way [he] cares about the way students care about morality and social justice.”
Recognizing the emotional investment many BCJ members placed into the campaign’s outcomes and the ongoing frustration they experienced, the club was careful to craft an environment that allowed members to support each other through the campaign’s most challenging moments. Pringle recalled that the club was very intentional about creating a tight community through rituals, traditions, and team-building retreats. Mudd said the retreats were a space for strategic visioning, planning for the upcoming semester, bringing in new members, and training new leadership, as well as holding space for physical activities like cooking and creating art. “That’s hugely important for any sort of organizing work … to have a sense of community with the people that you’re working with,” Mudd said.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, BCJ pivoted away from divestment to focus on supporting Brandeis Mutual Aid, the Financial Transparency Campaign, and coalition-building with other activist clubs. The Financial Transparency Campaign was a collaboration between clubs to increase transparency about the University’s finances and to center spending around student needs.
“COVID hit us pretty hard because it prevented us from being as intense about divestment as we would have liked to be,” BCJ alum Ellie Ross ’22 said in a Nov. 30, 2022 interview with the Justice. “The idea of taking away a revenue source for the University was more controversial during COVID … We had to work towards financial transparency that would support our divestment campaign by allowing us to back up a lot of our claims with very specific information to show how much the university’s resources [were] going towards sustainability.”
As more students returned to campus in the fall of 2021, Liebowitz released a letter on Oct. 6 titled “Advancing and Deepening Brandeis’ Commitment to Sustainability,” which outlined the University’s updated plans for fossil fuel investment. In the letter, Liebowitz revealed that only 4% of Brandeis’ portfolio was invested in fossil fuels as legacy investments. The letter also detailed further action steps that included continuing to not invest in fossil fuel private limited partnerships, investing in the green sector, as well as developing a system to measure Scope 1 and 2 emissions associated with the University’s holdings. According to the EPA, Scope 1 and 2 emissions are the direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with an institution’s activities and purchases of electricity, steam, heat or cooling.
Following the release of the letter, the BCJ published an open response in the Hoot criticizing the University’s “remarkably vague and conservative response to climate change.” They also outlined new demands for the University, which included divesting all direct holdings immediately, divesting all indirect holdings within two years, and the release of a statement from the board promising to never invest in fossil fuels again.
The timing of the University’s letter also raised questions for BCJ: Liebowitz had sent the letter weeks after several institutions in the area released their plans to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, President Lawrence Bacow of Harvard University sent a communication to the Harvard community on Sep. 3, 2021, and Boston University followed suit on Sep. 21, 2021.
BU and Harvard are both larger institutions that had, respectively, hefty endowments of $3.4 billion and $53 billion for fiscal year 2021. Meanwhile, Brandeis’ endowment for fiscal year 2022 was around $1.2 billion, which begs the question of whether Brandeis can fully divest without jeopardizing its financial health.
According to the Office of Investment Management’s website, Brandeis’ endowment funds “scholarships, fellowships, faculty salaries, programs, activities and facilities” designed to support the University’s “operational stability.” It is possible that any risk to Brandeis’ endowment and financial health has the potential to directly impact students.
The Office of Investment Management did not respond to the Justice’s request for comment. Mary Fischer, the associate director of sustainability, advised watching a recording from the November 2022 Finance and Administration Town Hall to understand “where the investment office is on their work,” but did not respond to a further request for an interview.
But Ross argued that rather than putting Brandeis’ financial health at risk, divestment can actually protect it. “Brandeis often likes to play the victim, like, ‘We’re just this small school, we don’t have that many funds to move around,’ but it’s such a short-sighted argument,” she said. “There are so many wins for renewable energy … there’s so much opportunity for profit there if you look into it.”
Mudd also suggested that the moral and ethical implications of divestment are more important to consider than its actual financial impact. “At Brandeis, we’re a small school that prides itself on its social justice values. So if we say that and we use that to recruit students to come here … then we have to ask serious questions about [whether] we are comfortable profiting off industries that have done irreparable damage to the world.”
BCJ’s legacy and new models
As of fall 2022, BCJ is no longer listed as an active club in Campus Groups or on Brandeis’ website. Mudd suggested that BCJ’s lack of presence on campus can be partly attributed to the unique challenges of college activism: “You only have four years while you’re there, and it’s hard to make the changes [you’re] asking for [in that time period]. Oftentimes, the case is that a lot of momentum gets built, a lot of pressure gets built, and then people graduate.”
In the Finance and Administration Town Hall held last semester on Nov. 29, Interim Chief Investment Officer Tarek Saghir shared that Brandeis was continuing decarbonization efforts outlined in the October 2021 statement and had made “meaningful progress on all three fronts.” He discussed Brandeis’ involvement in the final stages of work with “a European private equity manager that has a focus on decarbonization,” but did not provide specific details. He also spoke about a model Brandeis built to measure its endowment’s carbon footprint, which found that the University's Scope 1 and 2 emissions are twice that of its campus operations. Saghir said he remained hopeful that these emissions will go down with future decarbonization efforts.
With the uncertainty of the University’s divestment status and the pushback the movement has generated in the past, BCJ alumni held varying opinions on whether divestment remained the best method for Brandeis to tackle the climate crisis.
Ross emphasized the role of divestment in tackling the root of the crisis, rather than placing focus on surface-level, individualistic solutions: “I think a lot of times, people try to greenwash certain things, and say, ‘Oh, let’s focus on sustainability, let’s focus on campus recycling,’ but those are very minor things and don’t look at the root of the issue, which is greenhouse gas emissions … I think individual actions have merit in the ways they keep people engaged in the movement, but they’re really a distraction from the powerful entities, industries, and universities that are really fueling the climate crisis.”
Mudd agreed, highlighting how divestment also exposes corruption in our political system and holds politicians accountable: “What divestment does is that it shines a spotlight on these companies that have known the science about climate change, that know that their profits are threatened by it, and have used their resources to buy out politicians and influence policies so that they can continue to extract material resources and profit off of it at the expense of the world. They’re the ones that we need to be targeting, they're the ones we need to be putting pressure on.”
Where do we go from here?
Mudd and Pringle also both encouraged pivoting away from divestment to focus instead on reinvestment, which is the concept of reinvesting funds Brandeis has pulled out of fossil fuels into renewable energy sources, community loan funds like the Boston Ujima Project, or other responsible and ethical revenue streams.
Ultimately, there’s no definitive answer when it comes to the best way for citizens and institutions to help tackle the climate crisis, and the future can feel bleak.
“The climate crisis is past the point of being mitigated … The level of change that’s going to come in the next couple of decades is really unfathomable to us right now,” Mudd said. “And it’s because people were greedy, and people valued profit over people’s lives and over the sacredness of life and the Earth.”
In terms of what BCJ should focus on if students decide to revive the club, Pringle emphasized that though the club has historically been focused on divestment, people should not feel as though they are locked into only working on one specific campaign: “If it’s [the divestment campaign] not going anywhere, if students aren’t getting riled up about it … if the Board, if Ron is giving you nothing, you can take a break from it, and you can always come back.”