In the Spring of 2013, members of the Board of Trustees Investment Policy Subcommittee met with students advocating for a number of changes to the College investment strategy and portfolio aimed primarily at divesting its holdings of publicly traded companies that hold the majority of the world’s proven coal, oil, and gas reserves.
In a letter sent to the students earlier this week, Cheryl Holland ’80, chair of the subcommittee, informed the students that, after reviewing their proposal, the subcommittee has decided to recommend against those changes.
However, the subcommittee does plan to make a number of recommendations to the full Board of Trustees to promote more environmentally conscious investing by the College and to include students more in the investment process.
The reasoning behind the decision against divestment was laid out in a letter to the students signed by Holland:
While divestment would hurt the College financially, we don’t believe it would have any impact on the companies targeted by your proposal. The wealth of these companies is primarily generated by the sale of oil, gas and coal and not by the sale of stock. In addition, we also believe that divestment will not accomplish the larger and central goal of reducing the use of fossil fuels.
The letter goes on to recommend ways the College can move forward as a more environmentally sensitive investor and involve students more in the investment process:
- The Committee on Investment Responsibility should continue to work actively with students who are concerned with global warming and other environmental issues to become activist investors by voting the College’s proxies on sustainability issues and by participating in the investor process.
- The College should continue to invest in alternative energy opportunities.
- The College should provide regular opportunities for interested students to meet with our investment managers.
In a Bryn Mawr Now article, Eva Collier ’14, one of the members of the Earth Justice League, the student group spearheading the divestment campaign, says that although she finds the recommendations vague and has a lot of questions about them, she is heartened by how seriously the Board engaged with the issue and how committed the Board and College administration are to open conversations with students.
The Earth Justice League plans to continue its work towards divestment. “We still want to push for divestment from fossil fuels,” said member Betsy Helm ’16, “but we’d also be excited to get involved with some of the things they have proposed as well.”
Lee McClenon ’14, added, “Running this campaign is not just about environmental justice, it is just as much about having student engagement in College decision-making.”
In addition to meeting with the Investment Policy Subcommittee, McClenon and the other students met with the Trustee Committee on Investment Responsibility, had a teleconference with board members from both groups, met with Bryn Mawr’s president, and had multiple meetings with College Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer John Griffith.
"The Investment Policy Subcommittee studied this issue very closely, and spent a significant amount of time debating and discussing the divestment issue both within the committee and among the board members. They spent more time discussing divestment than any other issue this year," Griffith says.
While fossil fuel divestment student groups have been formed at many colleges recently, so far only five U.S. schools—Green Mountain College, College of the Atlantic, Hampshire College, Sterling College, and Unity College—have decided to divest. According to a June Bloomberg News article on the topic, no university or college with an endowment larger than $40 million has made a commitment to divest from fossil fuel companies. Bryn Mawr’s $814 million endowment contributes 32 percent of College revenue.
And while the subcommittee deals only with issues related to the endowment and investment decisions and strategies, Bryn Mawr Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Berenson emphasizes that the College has done a great deal in recent years to lower its carbon footprint and to involve students in the decision-making process.
This June, the College entered into an agreement with a new energy supplier which ensures that 50 percent of the energy used by the College comes from renewable sources.
“This is probably the single biggest move we’ve made in terms of sustainability” says Berenson.
“Under the leadership of Sustainability Leadership Group Chair Victor Donnay, professor of Mathematics, students, faculty, and staff have studied and implemented many sustainability initiatives over the past several years,” adds Berenson, who points to the solar panels on Cambrian Row, changes to LED lighting, and the reduction in the use of trays by dinning services as recent sustainability initiatives. “Thanks to these and other efforts, we already use less energy per student on average than our peer group does.”
There are several student groups for those interested in environmental issues including The BMC Greens and the Earth Justice League, as well as Self Governance Association committees on Sustainable Foods and Green Ambassadors.
The Sustainability Leadership Group (SLG), which is made up of students, faculty and staff, is the committee tasked with promoting environmentally friendly practices, policies, and initiatives on campus. Students interested in being a part of the SLG can find out more through the student groups mentioned above. Faculty and staff interested in being a part of SLG should contact Berenson.
Students can also choose to complete the requirements for the Tri-Co Environmental Studies Minor. At Bryn Mawr, the Tri-Co Environmental Studies Minor is housed within the Johanna Alderfer Harris Environmental Studies Program. The minor and program bring together scholars and students from across the natural and social sciences and the humanities, allowing students and faculty to explore the interactions among earth systems, human societies, and local and global environments.