Vassar Students Join National Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign

Apr 28, 2016

Vassar College students have been holding a sit-in this week, calling on the college’s Board of Trustees to divest its endowment funds from direct holdings in fossil fuel companies. Vassar is just one of hundreds of campuses—a number of them in the Northeast—where such efforts have taken place over the past few years.

The 24/7 sit-in began April 25 and ends April 29. About 25 students showed up the first few hours on the first day to sit outside Vassar College President Catharine Hill’s office. Hill was out of town, but did return the following day and sat with students to listen to their demands. Senior Ben Lehr helped organize the sit-in.

“Earlier in the semester, we passed a student referendum that got 91 percent support from student voters in favor of divestment from direct holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies,” says Lehr.

Jeff Kosmacher is spokesman for the college.

“We share our students’ concern about climate change and we’ve just chosen to take steps to reduce the college’s carbon footprint as a way to substantively address carbon footprint issues rather than to divest from our interests in the fossil fuel industry,” Kosmacher says.

One of these ways is through two new renewable energy sources to meet upwards of 20 percent of the Poughkeepsie college’s energy needs while reducing the carbon footprint by about 10 percent within a year of tapping into these resources. Alistair Hall is Vassar’s sustainability coordinator.

“So we signed these two agreements for renewable energy both in this past summer, 2015, and they’ll be online sometime this year,” Hall says. “And our Climate Action Plan is just being wrapped up currently and we just released a draft this week.”

The power purchase agreements are for electricity from a solar array in the Town of Northeast, set up exclusively for Vassar, and a small-scale hydro plant in Beacon. Hall says the college wants to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. And since 2005, Hall says the college has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent, or 10,000 metric tons. Lehr supports the college’s initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint.

“We feel that divestment is part of a larger plan of carbon neutrality and conceiving of campus carbon neutrality on its own without fossil fuel divestment ignores the larger political role that Vassar’s investments and investments from colleges and universities across the country and around the world play in contributing to the problem of climate change, enabling these fossil fuel companies to continue polluting,” says Lehr. “And Vassar’s own initiatives towards carbon neutrality on campus are commendable and we absolutely support those.”

While subject to fluctuation, endowment fund investments in fossil fuel companies have amounted to about 1 percent-to-2 percent. Junior Elise Ferguson is co-organizer of the sit-in. She says students have two demands in addition to divestment.

“One is a slight restructuring of the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee so that it’s more fair and equitable and representative of the campus community’s voice,” says Ferguson. “And then the other is the formation of a restructuring committee to restructure the governance of the rules of the college and the Board of Trustees because we feel that the campus community doesn’t have enough power in the functioning of our own institution.”

The Campus Investor Responsibility Committee, or CIRC, consists of administrators, faculty, alumni and students and is responsible for considering such proposals as divestment and making recommendations to the Board of Trustees under Vassar’s governance policies. Ferguson contends that voices are diluted when a member of CIRC serves as a faculty member, for example, but also is an alumnus.  Hall sits on CIRC and declined to comment with Kosmacher adding that given this student demand concerning CIRC is new, CIRC will take up the topic when the Trustees next meet in May. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns have been held at colleges and universities nationwide, including most recently at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Columbia University.