Divestment Campaigners to Address Pomona Board of Trustees

At Divest Pomona’s two-year ‘birthday celebration’ Dec. 3, student organizers had several reasons to celebrate. Meagan Tokunaga PO ’15, a lead organizer of the campaign, announced that Divest Pomona, which is affiliated with the 5C group Claremont Climate Justice, will be allowed to present before Pomona College’s Board of Trustees on Feb. 26. 

This news followed divestment activists’ increased focus on Cambridge Associates, Pomona’s main financial adviser, whose clients include many colleges and universities across the country. According to Fossil Free USA, Cambridge Associates has announced that it will support universities interested in divesting from fossil fuels through “a focus on alternative energy and fossil-free investment managers” and “various degrees of divestment within a portfolio.” Cambridge previously did not provide its clients a way to create fossil-free investment portfolios through the company.

Although Cambridge Associates has not released a formal announcement of a policy change on its website, members of Divest Pomona, including Tokunaga and Minah Choi PO ’18, said that the change could facilitate divestment for Pomona. 

In September 2013, approximately a year after students began advocating divestment, President David Oxtoby sent a memo formally rejecting divestment and citing a financial report by Cambridge Associates. According to the report, divestment would have caused a decrease of $6.6 million in spendable income per year. 

“I think that the estimate was based largely on the assumption that there were not fossil fuel-free avenues available,” Tokunaga said. “Now that Cambridge is making those avenues available, I think the cost would be substantially less, and it really delegitimizes President Oxtoby’s rejection letter.”

Karen Sisson, vice president and treasurer of the college, said that she has spoken with representatives of Cambridge Associates since the announcement. The estimate of a $6.6 million annual loss is still valid, she said.

“For us, it’s about a $6.6 million hit to the operating budget, so we would have to stop doing some of the things we’re doing and reallocate resources in the budget if we’re going to take that hit every year,” Sisson said.

John Jurewitz, a lecturer in economics at Pomona who believes that divestment should not be the ‘centerpiece’ of the college’s sustainability efforts, said that he thinks Cambridge’s financial report overestimated the potential cost of divestment.

“I think the Cambridge analysis last year was not a credible analysis of what the cost would be of undertaking divestment,” Jurewitz said. “If Cambridge is willing to reconsider what they told us before and have a little more sophisticated discussion about just what it means in terms of costs, then I would like to see that happen.”

Students at Pomona, as well as at Swarthmore and at American University, are hopeful that their college will reconsider divestment. 

“[Cambridge Associates] has a fiduciary responsibility to make the college as much money as possible when working with the endowment,” said Eliza Burke PO ’18, an organizer of Divest Pomona. “If they thought that they weren’t able to do that with fossil-free portfolios, then they would never have agreed to work with us.”   

Swarthmore junior Stephen O’Hanlon said that Swarthmore Mountain Justice, the college’s divestment group, has been in contact with the school’s Board of Managers since the Cambridge Associates announcement.

“I think it really changes the conversation around investment now that the primary investment adviser has been willing to work with us to develop a plan,” he said.

However, Sisson said that divesting from commingled funds, which make up 90 percent of Pomona’s investments, would still be difficult because there are not many actively managed, high-performing fossil fuel-free funds available as alternatives.

Deirdre Shelly, a senior at AU and an organizer for DivestAU who campaigned over the summer to make Cambridge Associates more divestment-friendly, called the lack of fossil fuel-free funds a “chicken and egg situation.”

“I think administrators and trustees need to put themselves out there a bit more because once colleges start saying they want to invest in fossil-free funds, that’s when more vehicles will open up,” Shelly said. “With any important issue it takes a little guts, a little backbone, so they need to be willing to take that step.”

Oxtoby believes that the financial impact of divestment is still prohibitive.

“When I look at [Cambridge Associates’] estimates, I don’t see any way Pomona could do this, or should,” Oxtoby said. “But other trustees may have a different view. I think it will be very interesting to hear from the students.”

Char Miller, W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona and a speaker at the Dec. 3 divestment rally, said that divestment would help Pomona align its financial decisions with its social values.

“If we believe, as I hope we do, that the mission of its college and its values line up with the social, cultural, environmental and political needs that divestment has identified, then we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth,” he said in an interview with TSL.

On the other hand, Sisson said that divestment is a symbolic act with no tangible impact on climate change.

Divestment “doesn’t actually reduce greenhouse gases; it doesn’t actually reduce carbon emissions, so the college focuses more on the things we can do tangibly, and we do a lot more than many colleges do,” she said.

But to divestment activists, symbolism is a useful tool. At the Dec. 3 divestment rally, students ate cake before marching to Oxtoby’s office to deliver a petition with approximately 270 signatures and invite Oxtoby to “join the divestment party.” 

Students at other colleges have taken similar actions recently. At AU, students sent letters to the Board of Trustees and held a rally with over 300 people before the Board voted not to divest Nov. 21. At Swarthmore, 60 students delivered a phone to the college president Nov. 19 to send the message that “divestment is a phone call away,” according to O’Hanlon.

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