Divestment, in all its recent debate and controversy, has become a sweeping trend
across college campuses throughout the United States. The movement has gained momentum and, in some cases, success at several colleges, including
our own Pitzer College. Recently, the Pomona Divestment initiative has been
working very hard to follow suit by campaigning to persuade Pomona College
President David Oxtoby and the Pomona Board of Trustees to divest the college’s
endowment from fossil fuels.
Divesting, however, is negligible in the battle against
global warming. It’s costly, irresponsible and solely symbolic.
In 2012, Cambridge Associates, Pomona’s chief financial
advisers, evaluated the impact that divestment would have on Pomona’s
endowment. They found that over the course of 10 years, the endowment’s
performance would decrease by $485,000,000—nearly half a billion dollars. On a
year-to-year basis, this would mean that Pomona would have $6.6 million less to
spend on salaries, programs and financial aid.
For the 56 percent of Pomona students like myself who
receive financial aid, divestment is a potential, serious threat to the
affordability of a Pomona education. In fact, that $6.6 million is the
numerical equivalent of 16.5 percent of the financial aid budget. Financial aid
is the reason that many students like myself can attend Pomona at all.
If, however, a divestment campaign promised to be a powerful
shift or a necessary move in the battle against global warming, then, as an
institution, we’d be obligated to divest. But the fact of the matter is that it
doesn’t. Divestment does not promise anything and has a limited basis for actual
The South African divestment campaign is often brought up as
an example (sometimes the only example) of the effectiveness of divestment.
Some research, however, suggests that it might actually not have done very much.
A 1999 study by economists Siew Hong Teoh, Ivo Welch and C. Paul Wazzan argues
that the campaign had little financial impact, minimally affecting South
African financial markets. Political agents in South Africa at the time even
claimed that the campaign, in its broad attempt to inflict economic
consequences on South Africa, actually hurt black workers most severely. Former
UK Prime Minister John Major aptly put it when he said that South African
divestment would “feed white consciences outside South Africa, not black
bellies within it.”
This, of course, brings up the question of damage. Although
many believe that divestment will hurt the fossil fuel companies financially,
it won’t really affect them at all. These companies are highly profitable, and
as soon as Pomona sells its shares, someone else will gladly purchase them without costing the company anything. In this sense, divestment would take away profitable shares from Pomona in exchange for no real impact.
Ironically, divestment could actually hurt our ability to
effect change in the fossil fuel industry. By selling our stakes in fossil fuel
corporations, we’d be effectively (and regrettably) losing all ability to
engage or open dialogue with said companies. If we sell our shares, then we no
longer have a voice to speak with to the companies. Divestment is an easy way
out—out of sight, out of mind. If we remain involved, we can solicit change,
equipped with a voice—a voice empowered by a physical stake in these companies.
I firmly and honestly believe that the Pomona divestment
campaign has the best intentions and is genuinely dedicated to addressing
climate change. I am, however, certain that divestment is the wrong path to
I propose that Pomona engage directly with the fossil fuel
companies to set standards for sustainability. Instead of disassociating itself
from these corporations entirely, the college should invest some part of its
annual spendable income—from the portion derived from fossil fuel profits—in
developing Pomona research toward global warming and climate change. This is
more likely to provide meaningful solutions to rapid climate change.
In the 2013 letter informing the Pomona community about the
decision not to divest, President Oxtoby wrote that “colleges such as
Pomona have an obligation to live up to the values they teach.”
Now, more than ever, it’s vital that Pomona makes good on
these words. As a community, we must turn rhetoric into action. For any and all
actions, the time is now.