Tufts Climate Action (TCA) member Shana Gallagher represented the student divestment campaign at a meeting with the executive committee of the University Board of Trustees on Oct. 13 to discuss the May 6 faculty resolution that advocated for Tufts to divest a portion of their endowment from fossil fuel companies.
They were joined by two of the resolution’s signees, Department of Sociology Professor Paul Joseph and Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Professor Julian Agyeman.
The faculty resolution calls for Tufts to divest holdings in fossil fuel companies in its separately-managed endowment funds by the end of this academic year by a vote of 47 to 13. It also advocated for the eventual full divestment of all holdings in fossil fuel companies by the same vote margin, according to a copy of the resolution provided to the Daily by Gallagher, a senior.
In Jan. 2014, the Tufts Divestment Working Group, established by University President Anthony Monaco in 2013, issued a list of recommendations for increasing Tufts’ commitment to sustainability.
This list included a rejection of fossil fuel divestment on the grounds that it would “likely result in a significant reduction in operating funds, leading to an immediate material and adverse impact on the educational experience, access to a Tufts education and research,” according to the recommendations, listed on the Office of the President’s website.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter Dolan said that this conclusion had not changed.
“[Our rejection of divestment] continues to be the case, particularly as our endowment returns, like those at many universities and colleges, have diminished,” Dolan told the Daily in an email. “Therefore, the Board of Trustees reiterates its support for its current investment policy.”
Gallagher said that TCA was deeply disappointed by the decision, adding that the Board is not only rejecting divestment but also widespread community support for TCA’s campaign.
“This referendum, which showed overwhelming faculty support for divestment, was the last in a series of measures that have demonstrated the unwavering community endorsement of divestment (including students, student government, and alumni),” Gallagher told the Daily in an email, referring to the faculty resolution as well as a Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate resolution urging Tufts to divest and a letter from Tufts alumnus Michael Kramer (A ’88), managing partner of Natural Investments LLC.
Dolan said that the original decision not to divest, made in 2014, was the product of substantial deliberation by a university-wide divestment working group and that he would stick by that decision.
Gallagher, however, said that this is a misleading characterization of those deliberations.
“The conclusions of the 2014 divestment working group were not endorsed by the student and many faculty members of that group, and to imply otherwise is extremely misleading of those participants’ perspectives,” she said.
Despite this decision, Dolan maintained that Tufts remained strongly committed to environmental sustainability, including in its investments.
“Sustainable energy is … a priority that has driven the university’s substantial capital investments in significant initiatives that will make a positive difference on Tufts’ own sustainability efforts and on climate change,” Dolan said.
Dolan added that the university now allows donors to designate endowment gifts to be invested specifically in the Tufts University Sustainability Fund.
The Sustainability Fund was launched in April 2015, according to a TuftsNow article. It has received backlash from students for its relatively small size and the perception that its main function is a way to placate the campus divestment campaign without conceding to its demands. Some of these concerns were voiced in a 2015 op-ed published by the Daily.
The Board’s renewed decision not to divest was made at a time of increased optimism for proponents of divestment at Tufts. According to Gallagher, TCA’s highly publicized sit-in in Monaco’s office in April 2015 was a catalyst for the Oct. 13 meeting.
“No one knows how much progress we’ve made because of it, but the sit-in was really effective,” she said. “The university wants to avoid negative press, and that’s what activism is: public pressure.”
Gallagher said that faculty support for divestment also probably helped lead to the meeting. Joseph agreed but emphasized that faculty and students each bring distinct and positive attributes to the divestment campaign.
“There are things that faculty support can provide, like stability over time, when students are cycling through, and I think there are good working relationships between many of the faculty and the administration,” he said. “On the other hand, students create a lot of energy, they have high motivation … so maybe students need faculty, but certainly faculty need students.”
Speaking several days before the meeting, Joseph said he was cautiously hopeful, due to recent developments, about the divestment debate.
“There’s some changes that have taken place … the world’s become hotter, and there are many more examples of climate change causing crises around the world. Another change is that … in addition to the student petitions, now there’s strong faculty support in favor of divestment,” Joseph said. “We’re at a moment right now that’s good for collaboration among the parties.”
Joseph said that changes in the structure of Tufts’ investments may also make progress on a divestment initiative more likely.
“Tufts’ investments … were originally presented only in commingled funds, and the administration argues to extract from those commingled funds would involve significant costs,” he said. “But the administration now has a small amount of direct holdings [in fossil fuel companies] in their endowment, which we could divest from with no cost.”
In the wake of the Board’s decision, Gallagher made this distinction as well.
“The statement that all forms of divestment — in this case specifically divestment of our direct holdings in fossil fuel companies — would have an adverse impact on Tufts’ endowment has not been shown and is fundamentally wrong,” she said.
Joseph said he still plans on advocating for divesting from the commingled funds as well, saying that Tufts could be a leader by working to move its holdings to other commingled funds which either directly promote sustainable energy or simply do not include fossil fuel companies.
“I think we do have to move in a world that doesn’t rely on carbon for energy. So my response would be that Tufts should work with other colleges to broaden the pool of investment options,” he said. “That way, you have a broader investment strategy that enables you to extricate yourself from fossil fuel holdings.”
These developments, however, did not manage to sway the Board to support divestment. In his statement, Dolan said that divestment was a simple solution that neglected the complexities of climate change.
“Leadership on the issue of climate change calls for actions such as [the statement’s proposed initiatives] that make a substantial and meaningful difference,” he said. “We believe that divestment would have minimal impact due to the small percentage of Tufts’ endowment funds invested directly and indirectly in fossil fuels.”
According to the Board of Trustees’ annual financial report for the 2014-15 academic year, Tufts’ return on investments in fossil fuel corporations may be decreasing.
“Commodities, and in particular oil, began their downward march in price towards the end of calendar 2014, indicating that cracks may be appearing in the global growth that has fueled the last few years’ strong returns,” the document’s Endowment and Investment Report reads.
Dolan did not respond to the Daily’s request for comment on this trend and its ramifications in time for publication.
Despite the Board’s decision to reject divestment, Joseph said the meeting would have value in advancing issues of sustainability on the university’s agenda either way.
“I think it’s certainly true that pressuring for divestment will generate more focus on sustainability efforts,” he said. “Divestment is not a magic bullet in and of itself, but pushing for divestment generates energy to make changes elsewhere.”
Joseph also said that universities like Tufts have an even more important role to play in sustainability because of the lack of action on the part of the federal government.
“The national system is broken. It’s individuals, NGOs and universities and colleges that are in a position to play a good role outside of government action,” he said. “If you had to design a system for change, national policy would be more important than universities’ divestment, I wouldn’t quarrel with that. But that ain’t happening.”
Recent trends suggest that serious sustainability initiatives are becoming more and more common at colleges and universities as well. According to the website for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 28 institutions of higher education have formally adopted Climate Action Plans as of 2015.
“All these colleges are pushing for divestment in their own ways, and I think the arc of all that is in favor of divestment,” Joseph said.
Because of this, Joseph said that the decision to divest is an opportunity for Tufts to take a leadership role not only among other colleges and universities but as an integral part of the global economy.
“This is what universities can do: We can be out front, we can be edgy,” he said. “I think universities have the potential to be leaders vis-a-vis the economy, and we think this is an opportunity for Tufts to be a leader vis-a-vis universities.”
Gallagher echoed these sentiments in a statement on behalf of TCA.
“Fossil fuel divestment and a transition to a clean power economy will happen, because it has to,” she said. “Most of history is a story of people doing things wrong, until enough people start doing things right. Climate change is our modern apartheid, our modern Holocaust.”
She went on to reaffirm TCA’s commitment to working collaboratively with administration where it was possible, while maintaining the group’s intention to apply pressure when necessary in order for the university to take confronting climate change seriously.
The entirety of Gallagher’s statement on behalf of TCA can be found here.