Pitzer Trustees Defer Divestment Decision

Following a spirited rally held Oct. 11 by the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign, the Pitzer College Board of Trustees announced Oct. 12 that the college will not divest its endowment from fossil fuel funds at this time. Instead, the Board of Trustees will form a task force of students, trustees, and faculty and staff members to explore Pitzer’s approach to climate change. 

“We want the students to understand that the Board has taken this issue very seriously, and that it has been elevated to the highest level of consideration that the Board can give to any issue,” said Donald Gould PO ’79, who chairs the Investment Committee of Pitzer’s Board of Trustees.

The group will have two goals, Gould said: “to inventory what is it we are already doing to address the issue of climate change,” and “to really thoughtfully look at what else we can do, including, but not limited to, divestment.” 

Jess Grady-Benson PZ ’14, a Divestment Campaign leader who helped launch the 5C movement last fall, was present when the Board of Trustees released its decision. 

“I was pleased that they hadn’t rejected our request, but at the same time, the creation of a task force felt like a method for pushing divestment to the side as a tactic,” Grady-Benson said. “Our worry is that we’ll form this committee, and then the committee will propose solutions other than divestment, when we believe it is imperative that the Board take leadership at this time and make a commitment to at least the most preliminary steps of divestment.”

In response to the decision, the Divestment Campaign released a statement calling on the Board of Trustees to “make an unambiguous commitment to complete fossil fuel divestment” by its May 2014 meeting.

The Pitzer Board of Trustees’ decision comes after the Pomona College Board of Trustees decided against divestment primarily because of financial reasons. A principal concern was that more than 90 percent of Pomona’s endowment is invested in commingled funds, so divestment could have a huge impact on the endowment’s growth. The college would not be able to divest from individual fossil fuel holdings within the commingled funds; rather, it would have to withdraw entirely from those funds to divest.

Gould cited a similar concern for Pitzer. 

“For institutions like Pitzer, where you’re largely invested in commingled funds, funds that have taken years or decades to accumulate in your portfolio, you don’t have direct control over your underlying exposures, including fossil fuels,” he said. “If the divestment proposal is taken in its most literal sense, it does present challenges to implementation.”

At last week’s rally, the Divestment Campaign gathered outside of West Hall, a residence hall at Pitzer, where they handed out buttons, made banners, and formed a circle to share reasons the college should divest.

“Pitzer College needs fossil fuel divestment because there is no Planet B, and that’s the reason why I’m doing this,” said Morissa Zuckerman PZ ’16, a member of the Divestment Campaign, at the rally. 

“Right now, it’s a 5C campaign with the idea that if one college divests, that puts pressure on all the other four colleges to do it,” Catherine “Jimmy” O’Hare PZ ’16 said at the rally. “For Pitzer, we’re trying to show the Board of Trustees that there is a lot of student support and the campus is really on board for this next step to really commit to what our core values outline.” 

Pitzer environmental analysis professor Paul Faulstich also spoke at the rally.

“We need personal change, but we also need cultural change, and that’s what you guys are working on,” Faulstich said. “I was so inspired to listen to the circle and hear all of the wisdom that you guys embody, and eventually with perseverance you’ll prevail.”

Following the rally, a smaller group of members from the Divestment Campaign delivered a presentation to the Pitzer Board of Trustees about divestment.

Even though the Pitzer Board of Trustees decided not to divest, Gould said he believes the campaign has made tangible progress.

“I do not think that they [the Divestment Campaign] should be either happy or disappointed,” Gould said. “I think they should be encouraged, and they should also feel a sense of accomplishment because through their efforts they’ve gotten the Board to seriously consider both their specific proposal and the larger public policy issue.” 

Moving forward, Grady-Benson said that the Divestment Campaign plans to work with the Board of Trustees to find out more about the task force that is being established. She said the campaign will continue to try to connect with alumni. 

“We are doing a lot of alumni outreach this fall, focusing on a pledge to get alumni to withhold their donations to Pitzer until Pitzer divests,” she said. “We have over 50 pledges at this point, so we’re going to keep working on that.”

A slogan the divestment team is using this year is “50 Forward Fossil Free,” which makes reference to Pitzer’s “50 Forward” anniversary campaign. 

“What we’re saying is yes, 50 Forward, but what do we want the next 50 to be? And how do we want the next 50 years at Pitzer College to reflect our values?” Zuckerman said. 

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