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Students, Alumni Urge Williams College To Divest From Fossil Fuels

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A coalition of Williams College students and alumni are calling on the private college to divest its $2.3 billion endowment from top fossil fuel companies.More than 500 students and alumni have signed a petition calling on Williams’ Board of Trustees to eliminate all direct and third party investments in the 200 largest fossil fuels companies over the next five years. The move echoes similar efforts at the University of Massachusetts and across the country. Student leader Tara Miller went on a 72-hour hunger strike earlier this year in support of fossil fuel divestment.

“It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s taking action,” Miller said. “It’s trying to change the social and political dialogue around it by making fossil fuels morally bankrupt.”

The proposal was delivered in early December to the school’s Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, which next meets January 15th. Williams Professor Anand Swamy chairs the committee consisting of two faculty, two students, two staff, and two alumni.

“I think it’s fairly clear that eventually the decisions  are not made by the ACSR, they are made by the Board of Trustees,” Swamy said. “I think we’ll spend some time on it and give them our best and most informed views possible. How much weight will they give it and what other information they will bring to bear? That’s really up to them.”

In 2013, the committee chose not to recommend a proposal urging the college to divest from coal companies. According to the college, Williams’ endowment doesn’t contain any coal stocks. The college directly invests just three percent of its endowment, the rest handled by account managers. About 12 percent of the college’s portion, roughly $8.3 million, is invested in fossil fuel related companies, according to Vice President of Public Affairs James Kolesar. Miller says the response from school leadership on the most recent proposal has been lukewarm.

“President [Adam] Falk and the Trustees are open to hearing the proposal, but President Falk especially doesn’t seem very keen on the idea,” Miller said. “He’s pushing back insisting that it won’t really make a difference. I think he’s much more economically and financially thinking about this issue.

Via email on behalf of the college, Kolesar said it would be inappropriate to comment ahead of the advisory committee’s taking up the matter, as opinions from President Adam Falk or members of the Board of Trustees could be seen as potentially influencing it.

Williams 1965 graduate Steve Kaagan served as Vermont’s Education Commissioner, earning an honorary degree from Williams in 1984. He says it’s important for alumni to create a strong bond with current students on this issue.

“It just seems to me that we have a responsibility for future generations to take this on,” Kaagan said. “Certainly what we’re asking Williams to do is to provide institutional leadership on a tough matter.”

Mike McGinn graduated from Williams in 1982 and went on to serve as Seattle’s mayor from 2010 to 2013, where he’s urged area organizations and the city’s pension board to divest from fossil fuels.

“What Williams is about is preparing young men and woman for the future,” McGinn said. “Well, I think there’s a job of Williams College to do that with its investments too.”

McGinn says international agreements and efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions are indicators of changing trends and potentially risky investments.

“The value of fossil fuels stocks is directly tied to the value of their reserves,” McGinn said. “If we’re going to get serious about climate change we may end up leaving all of those reserves in the ground in which case the stocks would be worthless.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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