The following article2 was published in the May 2016 edition of Frankly Speaking by two Oliners (and now alumni), Aaron Greiner and Izzy Harrison. They were part of a group of students who ultimately presented a proposal for fossil fuel divestment to the Board of Trustees in the spring of 2018. The conversation about divestment, mediated by Patty Gallagher (formerly the CFO), ended with students being told to wait until a new president settled into Olin.
By Aaron Greiner and Izzy Harrison on behalf of GROW
So, What is Divestment?
According to Wikipedia, “Divesting is the act of removing stocks from a portfolio based on mainly ethical, non-financial objections to certain business activities of a corporation.” One of the first times that divestment was used as a means to promote a social change was during apartheid, the extreme system of racial segregation, in South Africa. Companies, universities, organizations, local governments, and individuals took their money out of apartheid-affiliated businesses and are partially credited with helping to dismantle the system.
Today, there is a new divestment movement. Five hundred and seven institutions and 3.4 trillion dollars have been divested from the oil and gas industries. The goal of this movement is to put financial pressure on the largest contributors to climate change and other environmental disasters in an effort to get them to behave in a more socially and environmentally responsible manner. Sixty-one colleges have already divested in some meaningful way, and we hope Olin will join the movement.
Why Should Olin Divest?
Olin was founded on the principle of making the world a better place. Fossil fuels are unsustainable (they will run out), and are the single greatest contributors to climate change, so we believe it is against Olin’s founding principles to support fossil fuel companies We believe that continuing to profit from the destruction of the environment through knowingly investing our money in companies that are accelerating the pace of climate change is fundamentally against Olin’s core values.
The scientific consensus is clear and overwhelming; we cannot safely burn even half of global fossil fuel reserves without dangerously warming the planet with disastrous effects1. Furthermore, as the market inevitably shifts towards more renewable energy sources, we believe an innovative institution such as Olin should be on the forefront of this change.
We believe progressive action towards divestment will be a sound decision for the wellbeing of Olin’s alumni and current and future students. We deserve the opportunity to graduate with a future unimpaired by climate chaos.
What Have We Done so Far?
A little over a year ago, we started meeting with our CFO Patty Gallagher and Chair of the Investment Committee Doug Kahn to explore what it might look like if Olin were to divest. They were incredibly receptive, and we formed a close partnership. Over the past year, we have had many meetings and are making positive progress towards a solution that we can all get behind. In addition, we had a meeting with the investment firm that manages Olin’s money to get a sense from them about what divestment could look like while, of course, keeping the best financial interests of the school in mind.
We are very fortunate that we are at a place like Olin where we can have meetings like this, and our collaborative approach has had positive results. The Investment Committee has begun to have discussions about the topic of divestment. We will continue to work with Doug and Patty to advance the conversation towards a mutually acceptable resolution.
Before we move forward, we want to be confident that this is something that Faculty, Staff, Board Members, and Students, can all get behind. We are looking forward to continuing the progress in the fall and hope to keep the community updated.
It has been over four years since the article above was published. Since then, divestment from the 2003 holders of the most carbon reserves has been soundly rejected. Now, the Board is considering incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in our investment strategy. While a step in the right direction, this is essentially the bare minimum and is becoming, or has already become, standard practice4,5. This minimal acknowledgement of social and environmental realities casts them as mere externalities impacting our financial viability. Treating social and environmental issues as distinct and separable from economic issues in this way neglects the interconnectedness of the three. Olin, by continuing to profit on the climate crisis, is abjectly failing in its purported mission “to do good for humankind.” Olin is certainly not a leader among academic institutions in operational sustainability, nor in a holistic view of engineering. It’s time for Olin to recognize the contradiction of espousing leadership in integrating ethics into engineering while failing to take the action that so many of our peers (including Wellesley) already have.
Since the original article was published in 2016, the following U.S. schools have made commitments to divestment:
- American University (full), April 2020: BREAKING: AU announces full financial divestment from fossil fuel stocks – The Eagle (theeagleonline.com)
- Boston University (full), September 2021: Boston University to Divest from Fossil Fuel Industry | BU Today | Boston University
- Brandeis University (coal), November 2018: Fossil Fuel Investment Policies | Letters and Addresses | Office of the President | Brandeis University
- Brown University (full), March 2020: Letter from President Paxson: Brown’s actions on climate change | Brown University
- Columbia University (full), January 2021: University Announcement on Fossil Fuel Investments | Columbia News
- George Washington University (full), June 2020: GW to Eliminate All Fossil Fuel Investments from Endowment | GW Today | The George Washington University (gwu.edu)
- Georgetown University (full), February 2020: Georgetown University pledges to divest from fossil fuel companies – The Washington Post
- Harvard University (full), September 2021: Harvard Will Move to Divest its Endowment from Fossil Fuels | News | The Harvard Crimson (thecrimson.com)
- Johns Hopkins University (coal), December 2017: Johns Hopkins University to divest holdings in major coal producers | Hub (jhu.edu)
- Lewis and Clark College (full), February 2018: Board of Trustees Votes to Divest From Fossil Fuels • Newsroom • Lewis & Clark (lclark.edu)
- Middlebury College (full), January 2019: The key to winning victories against big oil? Perseverance | Bill McKibben | The Guardian
- Northland University (full), January 2017: Northland College divesting oil, coal and gas investments | Duluth News Tribune
- Rutgers University (full), March 2021: Rutgers to divest from fossil fuel industry | TheHill
- SUNY New Paltz (full), September 2017: SUNY New Paltz Foundation votes to divest from fossil fuel companies – SUNY New Paltz News
- Seattle University (full), September 2018: Seattle University will become first college in state to divest of fossil fuels | The Seattle Times
- University of California System (full), May 2020: UC Fully Divested from Fossil Fuels | UCLA Sustainability
- University of Illinois System (full), October 2020: UI’s new climate action plan includes divestment from fossil fuel | University-illinois | news-gazette.com
- University of Massachusetts System (coal), January 2019: UMass Foundation will divest from direct investments in coal companies – masslive.com
- University of Minnesota (full), September 2021: Under student pressure, U of Minn. to phase out fossil fuel investments – StarTribune.com
- University of Southern California (full), February 2021: USC Will Divest From Fossil Fuels (insidehighered.com)
- University of Vermont (full), July 2020: UVM Divests from Fossil Fuels
- Wellesley College (full), May 2021: Wellesley Commits to Ending Fossil Fuel Investments, Achieving Carbon Neutrality by 2040, to Address Urgent Challenges of Climate Change | Spotlight | Wellesley College
- Whitman College (full), November 2018: Whitman College Begins Process of Divestment from Fossil Fuels | Whitman College
Interested in continuing Olin’s divestment movement? Questions, comments, or concerns?