Pomona students approve ASPC referendum on fossil fuel divestment and disclosure

Divest 5Cs has collaborated with Sunrise Claremont Colleges to advocate for Pomona’s divestment from fossil fuels this year. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

Nearly nine in ten Pomona College students believe the school should move toward complete divestment from fossil fuels, a March 29 referendum revealed. 88 percent of students voted in favor of a resolution to divest on the ballot, while 96 percent of those who voted agreed that the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee should disclose the percentage of Pomona’s endowment that remains invested in fossil fuels.

The two questions appeared on the ballot as a result of the efforts of ASPC members, alongside the Pomona EcoReps and climate advocacy groups Divest 5Cs and Sunrise Claremont Colleges. The election engaged 1,083 voters, representing a turnout rate of 64 percent.

ASPC President Nirali Devgan PO ’22 told TSL via email she’s been in communication with the Board of Trustees on the topic of divestment since the beginning of the year.

“We’ve been meeting regularly with representatives from the Investment Office as well as [Pomona Treasurer] Rob Goldberg in order to establish rapport and a routine conversation on the topic,” Devgan said. “It’s been helpful to get a better sense of the logistical and operational matters in terms of examining what the bureaucratic process of eventual divestment would look like and a realistic timeline of such efforts, which we acknowledged early on this year would be a tiered, multi-year initiative.”

Nick Black PO ’24, a member of both Divest and Sunrise, noted that such meetings have often been unproductive, with board members continuously deciding to table votes regarding financial disclosure.

“Last semester, we made an ask at the Investment Committee to disclose the percentage of the endowment that’s invested in fossil fuels, which they basically tabled for the March meeting. And then at the March meeting, they tabled it again,” he said.

Black added that the board has previously dismissed calls for divestment, citing lack of student support. The referendum questions were intended to disprove this argument.

“We already had a petition with thousands of signatures, but we wanted an official student government election that only Pomona students could vote in, because we knew that it would show that Pomona students are very supportive of [divestment],” he said. “So now the trustees no longer have the argument of saying, ‘we don’t necessarily know that students are in support of this.’ So if they continue to choose to deny the desires of the students, they have to do so publicly with the knowledge that this is what we want.”

The results of the election demonstrated that students overwhelmingly support the calls for disclosure and divestment. But the extent to which the votes will influence the Board of Trustees’ decisions moving forward is unclear. 

“I passed the results of the referendum along to the administration, who will bring them up at the next Board of Trustees meeting. The results are more or less both what we (ASPC) and the administration expected, and we’re pretty happy with the overall turnout,” ASPC Vice President of Finance Adeena Liang PO ’23 said via email. “I’m personally hoping that the strong student interest in both disclosure and divestment will convince the trustees to more seriously pursue both of these important items.”

I’m personally hoping that the strong student interest in both disclosure and divestment will convince the trustees to more seriously pursue both of these important items.”

Adeena Liang PO '23

Board chair Samuel Glick PO ’04 said in an emailed statement that the board “will continue our discussions with ASPC on the best way to move forward. We believe the conversation has been productive so far.”

The board did not outline any further steps but stated that “Pomona is committed to sustainability and to reaching carbon neutrality by 2030.”

“We continue to focus on tangible, measurable commitments to sustainability on campus, taking effective action as a residential community and through the conservation choices we make as an institution,” Glick said.

On Dec. 6, 2021, a group of Pomona EcoReps met with Pomona Treasurer Robert Goldberg and CIO David Wallace to discuss divestment possibilities.

EcoRep Maya Nitschke-Alonso PO ’23 said the meeting was successful overall.

“[Goldberg and Wallace] were very willing to work with us by adding divestment to the list of topics to be addressed,” she said. “Our role as EcoReps is really helpful because we are employees of the college.” 

Nitschke-Alonso said that the main counterargument the Board of Trustees and other administrators make against divestment is the desire to maintain as large of an endowment as possible for student benefit.

“[Divestment] is a complex discussion as we also must recognize the purpose of the endowment in providing essential support for academic excellence and our enduring commitment to financial aid,” Glick said. “We want to be thoughtful and thorough in recognition of the endowment’s crucial role in ensuring equity and access across generations for the exceptional quality of a Pomona education.”

The board is likely to discuss the issue in an upcoming meeting. 

“Historically, a lot of the trustees have been hardliners on saying no to divestment,” Nitschke-Alonso said. “And so I would like to see them have that meeting, actually discuss it and have student representatives there to answer questions about what this means for us and to reassure them that we want to work with them.”

Selene “Eli” Li PO ’25 was recently elected as next year’s ASPC commissioner of facilities and environment. She said she’s committed to facilitating movement towards divestment.

“Since I am now a member of the student body senate, I think it will be really important for me personally to work towards having a good relationship with the school administration and perhaps the Board of Trustees as well,” she said. “I’d really just like to play a role as sort of a bridge.”

Divestment is a controversial issue for reasons extending beyond endowment prioritization. Black noted that an argument he hears often characterizes divestment as purely performative, simply exchanging existing ownership of funds to new, possibly less environmentally-conscious ownership.

But Black said divestment aims to stigmatize the funds it targets.

“Divestment has been a proven tactic, and as more financial institutions such as Pomona, which is functionally a billionaire, choose to no longer financially support [the fossil fuel industry], the investments will become less popular,” he said.

As institutions like Harvard University and Middlebury College commit toward divestment, students argue that the Claremont Colleges should follow in their path. 

“There are a lot of schools that Pomona tends to follow,” Nitschke-Alonso said. “And we also know that Pomona doesn’t like being the follower; it’s great to be the pioneer of these efforts.”

And we also know that Pomona doesn’t like being the follower; it’s great to be the pioneer of these [divestment] efforts.”

Maya Nitschke-Alonso PO '23

EcoRep Johnny Ellsworth PO’ 24 said the vote should act as a call to action for students fighting for divestment. 

“It’s really important for students to understand how divestment kind of intersects with a lot of other issues, like gender, like class, like disability — and I would encourage students, if they are learning more about divestment, to also consider how those things interact with each other,” he said.

Editor’s note: Nick Black PO ’24 is a music columnist for TSL and has previously contributed to the opinions section.

 

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