College considers fossil fuel divestment


The Berkeley Beacon Archives

Two members of the student organization Earth Emerson.

By Andrew Stanton

The Board of Trustees Investment Committee agreed to withdraw, or divest, part of the college’s endowment from unknown fossil fuel companies in an October meeting with the environmental organization Earth Emerson.

Only the Committee who oversees the college’s investments agreed to the divestment—the rest of the Board of Trustees has not voted yet.

Last year the Beacon reported the college indirectly invests 7 percent of the endowment into fossil fuel companies. The endowment comprises money donated to the college for investment and spending purposes.

Emerson operates on a $150 million endowment, according to previous Beacon reporting—7 percent equals approximately $10.5 million.

President M. Lee Pelton said the committee will make a recommendation to the rest of the board who will vote on whether or not to divest. Then the Committee will implement the board’s decision.

Earth Emerson Co-President Kayla Burns said the school faces a long process for total divestment.

She said the Committee wants to ensure they reinvest the funds in a way that allows the school to generate the same amount of money it did during its investment in the fossil fuel companies.

“It’s kind of cloudy, like exactly what is going to happen, but they said to take this meeting as a yes [to divestment]. They said that like three different times,” Burns said.

Burns said the Committee made it seem as though the vote will not become an issue, and the committee’s recommendation will carry weight with the rest of the board.

Pelton said he believes the board will most likely vote to divest from the fossil fuel companies.

If the rest of the board votes against divestment, Burns said Earth Emerson plans to keep working towards convincing them to do so.

The public does not know which companies the college invests in since the Board of Trustees invest indirectly. The college invests the endowment in fossil fuel-related stock or funds instead of particular companies to maximize profit—a strategy called indirect investment, according to previous Beacon reporting.

Burns said she does not yet know the specifics of how the school will divest. She said Earth Emerson intends to research how schools like Syracuse University divested $1.18 billion from fossil fuel companies in April 2015 to ease the Committee’s worry about whether or not the school will lose money.

Pelton said divesting will not impact scholarships because the school will reinvest the money—but he does not yet know where they will reinvest.

Earth Emerson members hope the reinvested funds go towards companies that work with renewable energy, Burns said.

The Committee said they will provide Earth Emerson with a written statement explaining their commitment, Burns said. She said the committee did not yet provide a timeline of the process, and it remains too early to understand exactly what may happen.

“We’re waiting on that written response from them because we just want to know for sure what they’re committing to at this point,” she said.

Earth Emerson decided to take action against Emerson’s investment in fossil fuels in spring 2018.

“We found that to be completely dissonant with the college’s message and with our own well-being as students,” Carrie Cullen, the student sustainability ambassador and former Earth Emerson president, said.

Pelton said the Committee maintained investments in fossil fuel companies to ensure endowment returned the highest return.

“I think that their principal preoccupation was making sure that the endowment portfolio was … producing the highest returns in order to support the academic mission and student life,” Pelton said.

Earth Emerson members began a campaign to convince the school to divest from these companies. They tabled in the Dining Center, spoke to classes, and started a petitionthat about a quarter of undergraduates signed, Burns said. She said they also met with administration and addressed the faculty assembly in April.

According to Cullen, Earth Emerson met with administration five times.

Sophomore Thea Farber, green space chair for Earth Emerson, spent her first semester as a member of Earth Emerson working on the campaign and tabled every other day in the Dining Center for hours last spring.

“I think it’s just really important that students know what happens when their trash goes to a landfill or what Emerson does with their money,” Farber said.

Burns said she did not expect the board to agree to divestment as soon as the semester after the campaign began. 

“I just didn’t think we would get the yes from them this soon,” she said. “I really thought that it would be a lot of us trying to persuade them. But luckily for us—and this definitely isn’t the case for a lot of other schools—they were really receptive to it.”

Pelton said the Committee agrees the college’s investments should reflect the college’s support of sustainability.

“The investment committee appreciates the students who spoke to them about this issue and that the investment committee is supportive in principle,” he said. 

Cullen emphasized the power and importance of student-led movements.

“I’ve seen a general tide of jaded cynicism that’s kind of going through campus,” Cullen said. “I think this is a really important milestone to prove the power of the student and to prove that if you’re unhappy with something, you’re capable of making the change.”

Headline and caption clarification (11/06/2018): The headline previously stated “Investment Committee votes ‘no’ to fossil fuel companies” but no legitimate vote was made by the Committee, only an agreement. The caption was also changed to reflect this.