Nearly everyone in the Olin community supports environmental sustainability. A group coalesced, forming Olin Climate Justice (OCJ) to push environmental sustainability at Olin. Unfortunately, they’ve not only become ineffective, but actually counterproductive. We students have allowed them to become our voice. We’ve allowed them to be our exclusive ear. Our understanding of the Board’s actions and inactions come through them. Recently, I reached out to multiple Board members so I could better understand the situation.
OCJ demanded divestment of any Olin investments in climate unfriendly companies. OCJ claims it has exhausted its options for collaborating with the Board of Trustees and that the Board refuses to listen.
I learned that in OCJ’s persistence the Board agreed to reasonable stated goals of OCJ, provided numerous opportunities for listening and collaborating, and in fact has taken action to have more than a symbolic impact for climate justice.
I learned that OCJ asked for a committee within the board where students could surface environmental issues and the Board delivered. The issue isn’t the Board’s willingness to collaborate to find real impact, but that OCJ rejects anything other than divesting as “not collaborating.”
OCJ asked the Board in a 2022 publication to divest all direct holdings in fossil fuels within five years. They prompted alumni to petition for divestment from direct holdings. I learned that Olin had already divested from all direct holdings. Without acknowledging this, OCJ now presses to prevent possible indirect holdings by divesting from collective investment funds that may include indirect holdings.
I learned that the Board wants student input but cannot allow students to have unilateral control over Olin investments. OCJ has communicated to students that they ask to be heard about divestment, but they did not communicate that they also requested audit veto rights on any investment decision. This is different from asking to have input into endowment decisions. The Board is fiscally accountable for its investments and cannot set a precedent that would abdicate that responsibility to students.
I learned that the Board has conducted extensive research on the environmental impact of divestment; the data shows it has nearly 0 impact. In fact, divestment costs time and optionality.
I learned that the Board has successfully pursued Environmental, Social, and Governance investing (ESG), a form of sustainable, socially responsible investing. Like divestment, it makes a public statement, but arguably has optionality for longer lasting changes.
ESG enables new tactics, like ClientEarth is trying. As shareholders of Shell, ClientEarth has standing to file a lawsuit against Shell’s Board for failing to implement a Paris Agreement compliant energy transition strategy. Winning million dollar lawsuits against Shell has no impact (as OCJ has explained) but winning a million dollar lawsuit against individual board members would.
The board proposed alternative approaches with more promising impact than divestment and extended the opportunity for students to collaborate to find more effective solutions. The Board suggested shareholder resolutions and finding changes that the Olin community could make on campus – all of which have proven to have a larger environmental impact than divesting. OCJ has not reciprocated collaboration; they have only pressed for divestment.
I learned that Olin convinced the endowment’s investment firm, Summit Rock, to implement ESG. They adopted it for Olin’s investments, and offered it to other investors. The Board invited OCJ to participate in a recent Summit Rock presentation regarding how it implemented ESG. OCJ showed up but refused to discuss ESG, simply pressing Summit Rock to consider divestment instead until the meeting was ended due to lack of productive engagement. The Board asked OCJ to communicate with the student body to find students who would be interested in engaging with this idea; without asking the student body, OCJ communicated that no one was interested.
The Board welcomed students to meetings with investors, potential new board members, and other high stakes guests. The Board demonstrated trust and willingness to include students in their core work. OCJ refused to engage beyond demands for divestment. The Board was hopeful for collaboration but students who attended the meetings appeared disengaged, using their cell phones, taking private meeting notes and exhibiting disrespectful behaviors.
Recently, the Board didn’t object when OCJ entered their meeting chanting loudly. They listened while each student spoke. When the Board president asked if listening was a two way street, OCJ responded by blasting music. OCJ persisted with music and shouting, forcing the Board to adjourn.
Olin’s relationship with the Board is important. It’s part of establishing an integrated, supportive community with a greater collective influence. Beyond addressing OCJ, the Board has run events to connect with students and build community. OCJ should reflect and change course now so it can help build Olin’s capacity to impact environmental change rather than continuing self-righteous and arguably ineffective demands.
I, too, want real positive environmental impact. I’m not proud of OCJ’s tactics. OCJ hasn’t acknowledged positive actions Olin has taken, the level of divestment that already exists, or the proposed co-curricular to explore greater impact opportunities. OCJ has refused to engage beyond demands for divestment. Exclusively dictating divestment without entertaining additional options causes harm and will not positively impact the environment.
Students, I encourage you to truly understand what you are supporting. Help OCJ recenter themselves on fighting for climate justice and recognize and collaborate with our allies. The Board has demonstrated they want to be an ally and so should all of us, including OCJ.