College Should be Held Accountable to Divestment Promises

The October resolution of the Board of Trustees to completely divest from fossil fuel investments is undoubtedly a monumental win. The decision highlights the efforts of student and alumni activist groups like the Oberlin Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group and how their work can lead to change in the College. At a time of heightened concern about climate change, paired with the need to act swiftly to stave off environmental catastrophe, the College has shown that it is committed to working for the future of our planet. 

The groups working toward divestment must be given their due praise. Their hard work has resulted in this incredible decision that will hopefully ensure that the College is no longer investing in the fossil fuel industry. The action also highlights the work of the Impact Investment Advisory Group, which was recently formed to promote the Investment Office’s Impact Investment Platform. The platform involves the divestment from fossil fuels and will be invaluable in promoting transparency in investments and how they affect Oberlin’s commitment to the environment and global social change.

Yet, as reported in last week’s edition of the Review, the decision does not mean an instant divestment, with the board moving to instead gradually divest. Speaking then to the Review, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan, OC ’84, explained the complex nature of such investments, saying that “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.”

While the board’s pragmatic concerns about the feasibility of an instant divestment are reasonable and, as the article mentioned, less than 1 percent of the Oberlin endowment is invested in fossil fuels — significantly lower than the 5 percent that it was in 2015 — Oberlin’s endowment is $1.2 billion, highlighting the fact that the College still has a significant amount of money invested in these industries. The fact that no new investments in that sector have occurred since 2017 is an optimistic sign, but now the College must cut down on the investments that it does have.

It has been clear for a long time that we need to act on climate change. As CNN noted in its coverage of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, the time in which we can avert this crisis is running out. Recent catastrophes like the floods in Pakistan are a result of us not acting fast enough. As noted in the board’s Resolution, Oberlin has long been a leader in combating climate change ever since it signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2006. The board did also restate its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2025, demonstrating its willingness to work with students on the issue. 

We can turn back to the 1970s and ’80s to see an example of student activism changing the College’s investments. From 1978 onward, students were involved in widespread demonstrations urging the College to divest entirely from South Africa because of Apartheid. Only after protests that led to 59 students being charged with violating General Faculty regulations on social and political unrest and a two-day sit-in at the Cox Administrative building did the board commit, in 1987, to divest fully by 1988, an entire decade after the issue was first raised. The board’s fossil fuel divestment commitment did come swiftly by comparison, but it does not include the hard deadline that the 1987 commitment did. While the promise itself is hugely significant, as it makes Oberlin one of only 76 U.S. colleges to commit to fully divesting from fossil fuels, it is not the immediate divestment that the Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group originally pushed for. Nonetheless, it represents progress. 

However, not making a hard deadline risks transforming the occasion into merely a symbolic victory if real action does not see the light of day. Divesting too slowly would also not help, and the board will have to balance its pragmatic considerations with the need to fulfill its commitment. Neither the board nor the students can afford to take their foot off the accelerator. Oberlin has a well-earned reputation for student activism and a history of action on the issue of climate change. There is much cause for hope that the College and students can work to ensure a brighter future for us all. Groups like the Oberlin Fossil Fuel Divestment Working Group and the student body as a whole must continue the campaign to ensure that the board does not falter in its commitment. Only through united action is the change we seek possible.