Trustees Reject Immediate Divestiture, Move to Divest Gradually


Photo courtesy of Oberlin College

The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies serves as a hub for environmental discourse on campus.

On Oct. 7, the Board of Trustees resolved to eventually fully divest from fossil fuel investments. This divestiture comes 16 years after the College signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. 

As it stands, fossil fuel accounts for less than 1 percent of the College’s endowment. These are legacy private energy investments indirectly invested in the fossil fuel industry. At their peak in 2015, these investments amounted to 5 percent of the endowment.

According to Sue Chandler, OC ’65, a lead organizer of the Oberlin Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group, various alumni came together to call for divestiture during the class’ 50-year reunion in 2015.

“There have been some student and alumni concerns since that time, but I think it was really in November of ’21 that this group of women from the class of ’65 said, ‘We wanna do something about this,’” Chandler said. “And then we began calling around, got in touch with the ’14 [and] ’15 people, with faculty, with other alumni, and finally and most important[ly], with some students.”

According to Board of Trustees Chair Chris Canavan, OC ’84, the decision to gradually divest comes after the board voted to reject a proposal to immediately divest from any investments tangentially connected to fossil fuels.

“The proposal was for us to immediately divest from any and all investments linked to fossil fuels and to make a public statement to that effect,” Canavan said. “And because divesting immediately and completely from anything connected to fossil fuels is problematic — it’s problematic in some cases because sometimes it’s not obvious that your investment is indirectly an investment in a fossil fuel business or an industry that relies on fossil fuels — we felt it would’ve been disingenuous for us to accept that resolution even if we couldn’t be absolutely confident that we could verify it.”

Though the proposal was rejected, Canavan maintained that the board’s goals are aligned with the proposal. The resolution passed by the board commits the College to complete divestiture of indirect investments in companies that support fossil fuel development in an unspecified period of time.

According to Canavan, immediate divestiture is made especially difficult by the processes through which the endowment is invested. 

“The fact is that when you’re investing over a billion dollars in all sorts of different markets, and in most cases, those investments are being made by other investment managers on your behalf, it’s practically impossible to be able to say at any given moment, ‘I can assure you without any doubt that not one tenth of 1 percent of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels,’” Canavan said.

The pledge to divest as presented in the board resolution places Oberlin among the 76 colleges and universities in the United States that have publicly declared their divestitures from fossil fuels. Chandler views this as a significant victory.

“When you stand up and say, ‘We are going to divest,’ and say it publicly and clearly, that is a big deal,” Chandler said. “It puts you on that side of history.”

Though Chandler and other members of the Oberlin Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group view this as a moment to celebrate, she cautions that the work ahead of the divestment community is far from done.

“The mega corporations whose profits depend on fossil fuel extraction show no signs of stopping the machine that’s driving life on this planet to the brink,” Chandler said. “The economic and political power is on the face of it unmatchable. It’s only through collective action, such as a divestment movement, that there is a chance to stop it.”

Chandler expressed that she and other members of the Working Group are involved in this collective action for the sake of generations to come.

“So often our look at the future comes through our grandchildren,” Chandler said. “And I can’t say strongly enough the sadness of looking at a future that is just overwhelmed by a climate crisis. … But it also makes us very willing to fight. And even when we’re old and maybe should be on the beach someplace, no, we’re right here fighting because we really believe that it’s the students and the young people that are at the center of things.”