Background: In 2004 Carleton creates the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC), to “advise the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees via the Vice President and Treasurer regarding the ethical, social and environmental issues that arise in the management of the college endowment.” In January of 2013, with little campus discussion or input from CRIC, the Trustees adopt a “Statement on Fossil Fuel Investment” stating that “Carleton does not have a policy of divesting, or of supporting divestment.”
Spring 2013: Divest Carleton is formed and calls upon the college to freeze any new investment in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies and divest from direct ownership and commingled funds that include public equities and corporate bonds from those 200 companies. The group builds a broad base of support:
- Over 1550 signatures collected on the alumni Divest Carleton petition, along with over 1000 on the student petition
- Over 70 faculty members submit a letter to the Trustees urging divestment
- The Carleton Student Association votes unanimously (with one abstention) for fossil fuel divestment
- Two separate CRIC surveys (2013 and 2016) conducted by Carleton statistics students show significant support for divestment in all college constituencies. From the 2016 study:
Spring 2015: Due to increased pressure from the Carleton community, the Board of Trustees assigns CRIC to investigate the impacts of divestment from direct holdings of fossil fuels. At the end of spring term, seven of eight CRIC members vote in favor of divestment. The eighth member votes for a more limited divestment, focusing on the top 100 coal stocks.
September 25, 2015: CRIC delivers its recommendation to divest in writing to the Board.
“After several months of intensive research, regular weekly meetings and discussions, and interaction with students, alumni, faculty, and staff, the members of CRIC have come to believe that the connection between fossil fuel companies and climate change does in fact make holding stock in these companies ethically problematic.” CRIC also concluded that “The financial risk of divestment to the Carleton endowment is small to none, and divestment may even be beneficial.”
November 2015: Despite CRIC’s exhaustive research and the Carleton community’s wide support for divestment, the Board of Trustees votes not to divest from any fossil fuels. This was NOT a unanimous vote.The Board publishes a letter detailing the reasons for its vote. Its arguments include:
- Impact on endowment income: “We believe that reducing the universe of possible investments will have a negative impact on long term investment returns.” The Trustees offer no evidence to support this “belief.”
- This is a “freedom of expression” issue: “Carleton’s Board—and, more generally, the College as an institution—has a long history of not taking positions on issues that are clearly academic and that do not directly pertain to and advance the College’s core educational mission. . . . Opinions among the Carleton community are never unanimous, and we must guard against inhibiting the freedom of expression of those who hold different or minority views.”
- Carleton does lots of good things to help the environment (true, and important! But this is not an either/or choice).
December 2015-May 2016: The student and alumni Divest Carleton groups and CRIC each send letters to the Board expressing their disappointment at its decision.
- From alumni letter: “Continuing to hold fossil fuel stocks is not an ethically neutral position. The explicit decision to continue to hold fossil fuel stocks is just as much a moral and political decision as divestment. Holding these stocks gives tacit approval to the behavior of the industry and creates for the College a vested interest in the continuation of a fossil based economy.”
- From student letter: Noting the broad support for divestment the letter observes: “Surely, then, it merits much more consideration than your cursory and unsatisfactory response grants it.”
- From CRIC letter: “We were disheartened that the Board’s response did not more clearly address why our arguments for divestment failed to clear the ‘high bar’ against which the Board is willing to make investment decisions based on moral concerns. Indeed, we felt that the tone of the November letter took a step back from the more open-minded tenor of Chairman Weitz’s March 2, 2015 letter to CRIC.”
2016-Present: Dissatisfied with the Board’s refusal to engage meaningfully with this issue, many Carleton alumni withhold or reduce their contributions to the college. Some alumni contribute to the Carleton College Fossil Free Fund, which will be disbursed to environmental nonprofits if the College does not divest. Others write letters to President Poskanzer and Board members. Two Honorary Degree recipients, David Loy ’69 and Gary Nabhan, return their degrees in protest of the failure to divest. Divest Carleton gathers further signatures and dialogues with Trustees when possible.
Hope for the future: The Board’s decision was not unanimous, and support for divestment among the Carleton community is only growing. As new members join the Board and as the urgency of climate action becomes ever clearer, we will continue to make our voices heard.