Group Expands Fossil Fuel Divestment Proposal

Sydney Allen, Editor-in-Chief

The Oberlin Fossil Fuel Divestment group is unsatisfied with the Board of Trustees’ noncommittal response to its divestment proposal and is firing back with an updated list of demands. The group is now calling for the Board to ban future investments and withdraw current holdings from 200 companies, up from the 12 companies identified in the previous proposal.

“Even if [the Board] isn’t invested now, that doesn’t mean anything for future investments,” said Hayden Arp, double-degree junior and co-author of the divestment proposal. “For all we know, with the statement they made, they could have reinvested the day after they sent the email.”

Board of Trustees Chair Clyde McGregor, OC ’74, told the five members of the Fossil Fuel Divestment group in an email on Oct. 27 that the Board does not invest in the 12 companies that they identified. The Board never issued a public statement regarding the group’s request.

Arp and the other four divestment proposal co-authors, College juniors Ellie Lezak and Jasper Clarkberg, College sophomore Naomi Roswell and Stephen Lezak, OC ’15, selected the 200 companies in accordance with January’s Fossil Free Index — a list comprised by a group that records global greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt “to source and analyze carbon emissions data and to generate research, benchmarks and investment solutions for investors who are attentive to climate risk,” according to its website. The divestment group was frustrated with the Board’s noncommittal response regarding future investments in the original 12 companies.

The new proposal asks the Board to divest Oberlin’s direct endowment holdings from the 200 listed corporations within the next two years and to assure students that it will refrain from future investments in the companies.

“It’s because of the lack of reinvestment statements that this divestment didn’t have any power,” Ellie Lezak said.

At both Trustee forums this semester, students called for more transparency in the Board’s decision-making process, especially in terms of divestment proposals. The Board rejected Students for a Free Palestine’s divestment proposal around the same time that it announced its decision about fossil fuel divestment.

According to the College’s Chief Investment Officer Jainen Thayer, divestment proposals are sent directly to the Investment Office. Thayer and Sandhya Subramanian, general counsel for the College, then review the proposal together to ensure that it is in good form before passing it along to the Board.

“Good form requires divestment proposals to meet the guidelines for submission, have clear requests and give some type of actionable request to Trustees,” Thayer said.

Once the proposal meets this standard, Thayer and Subramanian pass the proposal to the Board of Trustees’ executive committee. The executive committee is comprised of 12 members: President Marvin Krislov, Board of Trustees Chair Clyde McGregor, Vice Chair Pat Shanks, Audit Chair Chris Canavan, Investment Co-chair Amy Chen, Budget and Finance Chair Tom Cooper, Academic Affairs Chair Lillie Edwards, Capital Planning Chair Michael Karmarck, Compensation Chair Susan Troy, Development and Alumni Affairs Chair Harlan Waksal, Student Affairs Chair Danette Wineberg and Strategic Planning Steering Co-chair Diane Yu.

The 12 members of the executive committee decide if the proposal will be shared with the rest of the Board, according to Thayer. At that point, Thayer said his role switches to a facilitator for the trustees, providing “financial and performance-related information that might be requested by the Board of Trustees.”

“I think that it’s fair to say that the first couple of requests that have come through have really been treated with a great deal of care, and I think in some cases it might have been frustrating that there weren’t answers produced sooner,” Thayer said. “I think that it’s important that everyone understands, what I try to stress when I speak to students, is that there is a lot of care that is actually taken in considering these requests. This is not just a simple yes-no answer.”

As a step toward achieving transparency from the Board, the Fossil Fuel Divestment group added an unprecedented request to its divestment proposal, asking the Board to publish a statement in The Source, the College’s online publication, detailing its decision on the group’s proposal and policies regarding future investments in the named companies.

“A lot of the power of divestment isn’t in the economic impact it has,” Ellie Lezak said. “It’s in the political statement. It’s about the fact that an institution the size and caliber of Oberlin would publically condemn the fossil fuel industry by choosing not to support them financially.”

Lezak added that Oberlin has the opportunity to become one of the first schools with an endowment of its size to divest from the fossil fuel industry, racing schools like Wesleyan University, Middlebury College, Swarthmore College, Carleton College and Reed College, who are also pursuing aggressive divestment programs.

The proposal has received support from students, alumni, professors and Board members alike. Along with the proposal, divestment group members also obtained letters of support from distinguished alumni and faculty members and the College’s Committee on Environmental Sustainability.