Nancie Battaglia Photo
Scholar in residence Bill McKibben says Middlebury College should “green” its investment portfolio as well as its campus.
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College recently joined a growing number of higher education institutions when it announced this month that it would investigate divesting from fossil fuel companies.
In what many people consider a good sign for the growing movement in favor of divesting from fossil fuel companies, Middlebury College President Ronald Liebowitz said in a campuswide email that he looks “forward to engaging the community on an issue of great interest and import to the college and its many constituents.”
“A look at divestment must include the consequences, both pro and con, of such a direction, including how likely it will be to achieve the hoped-for results and what the implications might be for the college, for faculty, staff and individual students,” Liebowitz wrote.
The college’s announcement comes in the wake of a protest by Middlebury students who, through a hoax news release before a visit by the Dalai Lama, sought to engage students and raise awareness about the college’s investment practices.
In his email, Liebowitz also revealed that about 3.6 percent of the college’s $900 million endowment — about $32 million — is directly invested in companies related to fossil fuels. He said less than 1 percent of the endowment is directly invested in defense and arms manufacturing.
“The management of Middlebury’s endowment is complex and has evolved over time,” Liebowitz wrote. “We are part of a consortium with other colleges and foundations whose pooled resources are invested in a number of ‘funds-of-funds’ and therefore the college is very limited in either selecting or deleting any particular investment within its overall portfolio.”
Liebowitz went on to say that despite those limitations, he has instructed its investment firm Investure to follow environmental, social and corporate governance principles. He added that the college will host a series of panels with its investment firm, investment managers and Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury who has promoted the movement of divestment by colleges.
McKibben, who founded the sustainability organization 350.org, said Middlebury’s decision is “the right thing they should be doing.”
“If you are going to green the campus, it makes sense that you should green the portfolio,” he said, referring to Middlebury’s commitment to becoming carbon-neutral by 2016.
The growing movement seeking that colleges divest themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies is still in its early stages and modeled after the 1980s anti-apartheid movement that helped politically weaken South Africa’s white-supremacist government, McKibben said.
Campaigns at more than 100 colleges and universities are protesting their college’s investments going to large fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and BP.
Unity College in Maine adopted a policy of working with its investment firm to minimize all holdings in coal, oil and gas stocks. The administration at Hampshire College in Massachusetts also approved a policy of investing in environmentally responsible companies.
At the University of Vermont, students this fall were very vocal in demanding the board of trustees sell its shares of fossil fuel companies.
“Students are particularly suited to think about this,” McKibben said. “We are very hopeful that trustees will take all of this into consideration.”
McKibben said colleges divesting from fossil fuels will not bankrupt big fuel companies overnight but will challenge the morals behind their political power.
“It’s still very much in the early stages,” he said. “Hopefully it will reduce their credibility and political power. We want to do what we did to Philip Morris.”
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