Trustees Meet with Students to Discuss Divestment

Vice President and Treasurer of Pomona College Karen Sisson convened a meeting with a members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff and students yesterday morning to hear a presentation from the 5C Divestment Campaign and a presentation from the Treasurer’s office, giving attendees an opportunity to hear all sides of the arguments for and against divestment.

At the meeting Megan Tokunaga PO ’15, Kai Orans PO ’14, Rose Egelhoff PO ’14, Patrick Pelegri-O’Day PO ’15 and Alex Bell PO ’14 represented the 5C Divestment Campaign Team, which got off the ground in the beginning of November 2012 with a petition that called on all five Claremont Colleges to freeze investments in fossil fuel companies. The Campaign is part of Bill McKibben’s national movement for climate change through 

“The main purpose of this meeting was to … make sure that everybody is understanding what’s at stake, what the moral issues on all sides are, and what would have to practically be done to divest,” said Professor Thomas Moore, the Convener of the Committee for Social Responsibility, which advises President David Oxtoby on how to vote in shareholder meetings at companies in which the college is invested. 

The first half of the meeting was a presentation from the Student Divestment Campaign, which outlined its proposal to the Board of Trustees for how the college can divest from all fossil fuel companies in the near future. 

“The goal of this meeting was to create the discussion of what options are available within the Board of Trustee setting, and I think that this meeting was successful in doing that,” said Tokunaga, one of the presenters for the divestment campaign. 

“It is very clear that they had listened to some of the concerns I raised and tried to address them in the presentation,” Sisson said of the students’ presentation. 

According to Tokunaga, the student presentation addressed two main questions: “Why divest?” and “Is it worthwhile?” 

“Our motivations are moral, scientific and political,” she said. “If divestment is the most effective means of political change … we have to appreciate the power of a social movement.” 

Tokunaga said she admits that no one knows if divestment is the most effective way to combat the negative affects of climate change.

In Treasurer Sisson’s presentation at the meeting, she addressed the challenges that the process of divestment would entail for the college. The college’s endowment is not invested directly into individual firms, but is rather entrusted to over 250 managers through the Cambridge Group who decide privately in which companies to invest. Pomona College has been a client of Cambridge since 1980.

“If the college chooses to divest in the near future, it may have to terminate long-standing relationships with many of the current managers,” Moore said. “If we do, that could cost us.”

Another issue that the Board of Trustees must consider when deciding whether or not to divest is the strength of Pomona’s endowment, which is one of the largest among peer institutions.

“It’s the college’s responsibility to try and do as best they can to manage that investment because the future of the college depends on it,” Moore said.

According to Joshua Propp PO ’13, an Environmental Analysis major concentrating in Policy who was at the meeting, “40% of our operation budget comes from returns on our endowment whereas at Pitzer it’s 3-5%.”

“With a question like this, there is never an easy solution otherwise we’d all be implementing it,” Allison Brown, a trustee on the Investments Committee, said. “But I think we all agree that what’s very important with this is the dialogue, and how can that play out nationally and then hopefully internationally, because this is an international issue.”

The meeting was strictly informative and was meant to be a jumping-off point for continuing discussions about divestment at the college.

“I didn’t feel there were sides in the room,” Brown said. “I thought that was really powerful that it was a discussion.”

“I think again we had a really good informal discussion,” Sisson said. She added that there were “a lot of frank exchange of views, and there was a lot of learning going on.” 

Sisson acknowledged that if the college were to divest, it might take years, depending on whether or not the Board of Trustees decided to finish out contracts with the current fund managers or not. 

The campaign for divestment that Bill McKibben started calls for “immediate” action, but Tokunaga said that the Board of Trustees “recognized that something needs to be done, which is great, which is a success.”

According to Propp, no alternatives to divestment were offered in the meeting, and the trustees have not consulted Cambridge Group to see whether the college’s fears about losing fund managers is real. 

Currently 10 to 12 percent of the college’s endowment is invested in the energy sector, which includes both clean energy and carbon as well as some firms that were recommended for divestment and some that were not, said Oxtoby. 

Bowdoin College in Maine has only 1.4% of its endowment invested in fossil fuel companies and Middlebury College has 3.6% invested in fossil fuels.

“Allison and Mark Fukunaga, who is chair of the Investments committee have committed to having a discussion with the investments committee and then there’ll be some sort of response,” Sisson said after the meeting.

In addition, the Committee for Social Responsibility will spend at least its first meeting in April discussing the question of divestment, its convener Moore said. If that committee votes that the college should pursue divestment as a viable way to combat climate change, the Board of Trustees as a whole will have to consider the question.

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