Oberlin Must Publicly Divest from Fossil Fuels

On May 20 of this year, the Oberlin Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group sent a call to Oberlin officials to join the College’s commitment to campus-wide carbon neutrality by 2025 with a public pledge to divest completely from fossil fuels by the same date. This call to action, which was addressed to Board of Trustees Chair Chris Canavan; Chief Investment Officer Jun Yang; Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary Matthew Lahey; President Carmen Twillie Ambar; and other Oberlin officials, has now been signed by 190 students, faculty members, and alumni.

The economic and political power of corporations which have reaped significant profits from fossil fuel extraction is unparalleled. It is only through collective action that there is a chance to stop irreversible environmental harm. This venture would add Oberlin’s name to the long list of colleges and universities that have made their divestment from fossil fuels public. Moreover, it would align Oberlin with the millions worldwide who see the disproportionate impact of climate change on those living in poverty, people of color, and today’s youth. As stated in our letter, what we want is for Oberlin to take on a larger moral responsibility, one that takes a stand against our planet’s ultimate existential threat. 

In turn, we received two responses: one from Chris Canavan, whose comments were included in a May 20, 2022 article in the Review, “Student Groups Demand Divestment from Fossil Fuels,” and a second from Jun Yang in a May 24 email to the Working Group. The responses from Canavan and Yang were appreciated.

“The endowment’s exposure to fossil fuels is small and shrinking,” Canavan wrote. “This is deliberate. We haven’t made any new investments connected to fossil fuels for some time, and we are letting go of legacy investments as fast as we feasibly can. Our legacy exposures are mostly tied up in investments that can’t easily be liquidated overnight.” 

We appreciate the Board’s decision to reduce fossil fuel holdings, and, from previous research, were not surprised by the numbers in their report. However, neither Canavan nor Yang’s report on the present level of current holdings addressed the central idea of the call: the importance of a clear and public fossil fuel divestment policy. Meanwhile, 64 U.S. colleges and universities — including sister institutions like Middlebury, Amherst, Dartmouth, and Kenyon — have issued commitments to full divestment. 

For example, in a fall 2021 public statement, Dartmouth stated that it had “launched a comprehensive plan to put forth solutions to help address the ongoing climate crisis, both locally and globally. The plan consists of a diverse set of measures focusing on three areas of impact: research and education, energy efficiency and resiliency on campus, and strategic investment of endowment funds, which includes investing in energy transitions while reducing all fossil fuel holdings to zero.”

The context and framing of this discussion are also important. 

“We want a face-to-face meeting with [the Board of Trustees],” Courtney Horner, a third-year College student and member of the working group, wrote. “We want to work with them, not against them. Jun Yang writes about supporting current and future generations of the Oberlin community. That is the exact same thing that we are doing. If [the Board] is not actually listening to and working with the current generation, their support is useless. If I’ve learned one thing from my Oberlin education, it’s that solutions that don’t consider all members of the community they’re trying to help only create more problems.” 

We don’t doubt that there are members of the Board of Trustees who share our urgent concern. Many have dedicated considerable energy to issues of justice for farmworkers, women, and racial minorities, as well as to science and democracy. We call on Chair Canavan and the Executive Committee to put this call for a public pledge to divest from fossil fuels before the Board at its Oct. 6–7 meeting — and to invite the participation of all sectors of the Oberlin community.