Pitzer Sets the Claremont Curve

On Saturday, April 12, Pitzer College committed to divesting 99 percent of its
endowment from fossil fuels. It will reduce its carbon footprint by 25 percent in the
next two years and establish a fund within its endowment to
promote campus sustainability and implement environmental, social, and governance screens on all of its investments in the future. Congratulations to the Pitzer community on
the breadth of their plan, the collaborative process that led to it, and the
strong commitment that they have made. This action puts the spotlight back on Pomona College and demands that we take a
hard look at where we are. 

Pomona President David Oxtoby rejected divestment in September 2013 while
pointing to our “leadership in creating a campus culture where sustainability
is a priority” and to our “obligation to live up to the values we teach.” We have our buildings certified by Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) and promote the Organic Farm in all our pamphlets,
but these actions only come when it’s convenient, when it gives us the
opportunity to advertise, market, and rebrand ourselves. How many people know the actual history of
the Farm—how the administration had opposed it for years and only jumped on
board when it became structured and institutionalized enough be used as a new
advertisement for the college? 

This false heroism, flip-flopping, and opportunism is not at
all what leadership, sustainability, values, or obligation are about. These are qualities of upstanding character,
not chips to be traded in for a new donation campaign or a rise in the
rankings. Leadership means pioneering,
going out on the edge where no one has gone. Pitzer’s recent actions demonstrate leadership.   

President Oxtoby and the Board of Trustees used the threat of a $485
million projected cost over 10 years to shut down the divestment conversation
at Pomona. Pitzer’s approach sheds light
on the inappropriateness and inadequacy of Pomona’s process. At Pitzer, instead of starting with an
estimate for the projected cost of divestment, students, along with staff, faculty and
board members, convened to discuss first whether divestment is important to
pursue. The answer was a resounding yes. Then, the finance committee was tasked
with creating a plan that would have a minimal projected cost. And they figured it out. 

This illustrates three things. Once there is genuine
willingness to divest, the substantial divestment of a reasonably large fund is
feasible from a financial perspective. Also, it casts serious doubt on Cambridge Associate’s ad hoc claim that divestment would cost Pomona $485 million. This claim rests on the assumption that divestment would force Pomona to drop all of its mutual funds immediately. Although the endowments are of different size and composition, Pitzer’s ability to divest substantially while holding on to most of their mutual funds shows that Pomona’s assumption is uncharitable, uncreative, and under-explored. Finally, it illustrates
how differently the conversation evolved at Pomona. Unlike at Pitzer, the Pomona community was never directly involved in the decision-making process about whether and why divestment is important. Instead, a small subset of the board
commissioned an analysis from our own self-interested financial analyst,
Cambridge Associates, and used that figure as justification to shut down the
conversation. 

Next Thursday, join me and the rest of the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign at the fountain at Pomona’s Smith Campus Center at 2:30 p.m.! We’re marching to President Oxtoby’s office and demanding
that Pomona open a community-wide conversation about divestment and our
responsibility to educate and take action on climate injustice. Until then, we’ll have to leave leadership
and values to schools like Pitzer. 

Kai Orans PO ’14 is majoring in mathematics.

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