As reported in Bryn Mawr Now, the Board of Trustees Investment Policy Subcommittee announced in a letter to students its decision not to recommend divestment from fossil fuels. A number of the students involved in the campaign for divestment offer their reactions to the decision, their thoughts on engaging with the Board, and the future of the divestment campaign at the College.
The Bryn Mawr College Earth Justice League, a student group dedicated to nonviolent direct action in matters of environmental justice, spent the past year engaged in a campaign urging the College to divest its investments in publicly traded companies and private investments linked to fossil fuels. During its campaign, the group met with College CFO John Griffith, then-President Jane McAuliffe, and two subcommittees of the Board of Trustees to present their case.
The use of divestment for environmental causes is a more recent but national trend on U.S. campuses. Earth Justice League members said they closely watched the divestment campaign at Swarthmore College over the past three years as they prepared their own case for divestment.
“A lot of schools and churches and municipalities are getting on board with the movement to divest from fossil fuels,” explained Betsy Helm ’16. “Whether or not we make a direct financial impact, we give a strong message that we don’t want business as usual from fossil fuel companies anymore. It’s just not a sustainable way to live.”
Fellow group member Lee McClenon ’14 framed divestment as an opportunity for the College to demonstrate leadership in social justice. “We see this as a chance for Bryn Mawr to really shine as a leader in a social movement and prove Bryn Mawr’s commitment outside the classroom to doing good work and turning out alumnae who are committed to social justice issues and who really think critically about the ways they want to engage in the world.”
The Earth Justice League utilized several strategies to engage the Bryn Mawr community, including reaching out to alumnae/i during Reunion Weekend in June. The group sought pledges from alumnae/i to increase donations to the College on the day divestment occurred, resulting in more than $1,000 worth of pledges in a two-hour time frame. The group also held conversations with alumnae/i involved in the previous, successful South African divestment campaign.
They reached out to current students using social media, tables in the campus center, garnering a statement of support from SGA, petitions, and—most important according to group members—conversation. “It is really the conversations that make a difference, to really explain what we’re doing,” said McClenon. “Running this campaign is not just about environmental justice, it is just as much about having student engagement in College decision-making. It’s really important to our group to make sure that our community knows what’s going on with our campaign and why we’re pushing for it—so we can have their support for our work and so that other students feel empowered to bring their own ideas to College administrators.”
In its letter to students informing them of the decision not to recommend divestment, the Investment Policy Subcommittee offered three sustainability-centered recommendations it plans to present at the October Board meeting. They also invited the Earth Justice League to take part in a discussion of sustainability practices during the meeting. Eva Collier ’14 called the Board’s engagement with students “heartening,” but noted that the group has a number of questions about the alternative recommendations. “It feels a bit vague, some of the commitments and next steps that they have put forward—even if they do sound good,” she said.
The Earth Justice League says it would like to see a discussion of the use of renewable energy at the College also to include an evaluation and comparison of current investment in non-renewable energy. Additionally, the Board recommended the use of proxy voting on sustainability issues and encouraged students to become part of the investment process. “Our group understands that there have not been a lot of historic precedents to show that proxy voting is going to be effective in environmental causes, especially for climate change, which is such a widespread issue,” McClenon said.
The group objected to the subcommitte’s reasoning, outlined in its letter, that divestment falls outside of the College’s stated mission—to provide its students a rigorous education and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work. “We think divestment absolutely falls within the College’s mission and that providing a rigorous education isn’t devoid of political and social responsibility—the institution sets an example to its students,” Collier said.
“We feel that modeling ethical behavior is as important an educational tool as hiring competent faculty and creating good curriculum,” said group member Ingrid Asplund ’14. “We feel that setting an example of how an institution behaves in terms of incorporating its students into its decision-making process and in making responsible investments is an important part of educating, to us as students.”
The Earth Justice League says it will continue to engage with the Board on issues of sustainability—its members are represented on the College Sustainability Leadership Group—but it also will continue the divestment campaign. “We still want to push for divestment from fossil fuels because we do believe it is in the best interest of the College, but we’d also be excited to get involved with some of the things they have proposed as well,” Helm said.
The group will continue its conversations about divestment with current students and hopes the experience of their activism and engagement with College administrators will serve to inspire future on-campus engagement. “Most important, we hope to contribute to the ability of students to engage critically with difficult ethical questions in our ever-changing world,” Collier said. “Even if students aren’t getting involved in the divestment campaign directly, I think we’re setting an example and a precedent for students to engage with the administration.”