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Paxson: Next steps in the consideration of divestment

Guest Columnist
Monday, April 15, 2013

This year, the student group Brown Divest Coal requested that the University divest from a group of companies that either mine or burn coal for the production of power. The actions of Brown Divest Coal are part of a larger national movement aimed at encouraging universities and colleges to divest from all fossil fuels. Though the students at Brown have so far focused on coal, they have indicated they intend to advocate for divestiture from all fossil fuels after the matter of coal has been decided.

Divest Coal’s request has been considered by the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, a committee of faculty members, students, staff members and alums that considers issues of ethical and moral responsibility in investment decisions and makes recommendations to the Corporation.

I received a letter from ACCRIP April 9 that states that on Jan. 23 “ACCRIP voted by a margin of six in favor to two against, with one abstention, to recommend that ‘the University publicly divest from the fifteen coal companies’ that have contributed most egregiously to the social and environmental harms associated with the coal industry.” The April 9 letter spells out criteria for divestment and includes arguments for and against the recommendation of divestment. ACCRIP’s recommendation can be found on the committee’s website.

Among the arguments in favor of divestment are that coal is a serious environmental hazard and that the mining and burning of coal make significant contributions to the problems of climate change and environmental degradation — consequences so grave it would be inconsistent with the goals and principles of the University to accept funds from that source. Arguments against divestment include concerns about the practical difficulties of monitoring which companies should be excluded from the portfolio, as well as the view that encouraging clean coal techonologies might be a better approach until there exist viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

I expect there is wide consensus within the Brown community that climate change is a serious concern and that Brown should continue to strengthen its commitment to environmental sustainability. Brown has had remarkable success promoting sustainability on campus and in our surrounding community. Our 2012 Sustainability Progress Report indicates that in the past five years we have reduced our carbon footprint 29.4 percent below 2007 levels. This progress reflects the work of dedicated faculty members, students and staff members who have developed creative strategies for reducing our energy use. The University is also making significant contributions to sustainability through its educational and research programs that deal with the complex nexus of scientific, social, political and economic issues that contribute to climate change and environmental degradation.

Over the past six months, I have had several discussions with members of Brown Divest Coal about whether divestiture from coal and, more broadly, from fossil fuel companies, are further steps the University should take toward promoting environmental sustainability. I respect the passion and energy the students have devoted to this issue. But as the ACCRIP decision suggests, there are multiple points of view on the merits of divestiture, even among those who feel strongly that climate change is a serious concern. The Corporation’s decision about divestiture from coal or, eventually, all fossil fuels, will require careful consideration of whether divestiture is likely to be an effective method of reducing the pace of climate change and whether divestiture would limit the ability of Brown’s Investment Office to steward a strong endowment in support of the academic mission of the University.

In the coming years, Brown and many other colleges and universities will be challenged to make decisions about how best to respond to the serious problem of climate change. In the near term, the Corporation must decide whether to divest from the 15 coal companies named by Brown Divest Coal. After consultation with the Advisory and Executive Committee of the Corporation, which is charged with considering issues of social responsibility in investing, I have asked Donald Hood SCM’68 PhD’70 to head an ad hoc committee of the Corporation that will consider the request of Brown Divest Coal and ACCRIP’s recommendation. The committee, which includes Alison Cohen ’09, Laurence Cohen ’78, Samuel Mencoff ’78, Steven Price ’84 and Maria Zuber SCM’83 PhD’86 P’11, has broad expertise in the areas of environment, health, financial markets and public policy. The committee is charged with consulting with members of the Brown community, including Brown Divest Coal, and reporting back to the Corporation.

Brown has a long and proud history of confronting important societal issues. Though these issues often elicit strongly felt points of view, I hope that our community will approach the matter of divestiture from coal and other fossil fuels with the high degree of openness, respect and intellectual integrity that characterizes the best of our institutional values.



Christina Paxson is president of the University and can be reached at

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  1. In less than an academic year, Divest has collected petition signatures from a significant fraction of the undergraduate population, staged multiple rallies, found the support of many alumni, and now most recently won the support of the University body whose exact purpose is to monitor the ethics of University investments. And now our President has indicated that she has heard our concerns loud and clear and will act as a strong voice in our favor at the Corporation meeting, advocating for what we have presented where we cannot! This must be the “active listening” so enthusiastically noted during the UCS debates.

    Oh wait — actually it’s quite infuriating when our President stalls as long as possible in the interest of appeasing the donors whose good graces are the rationale for everything Brown does institutionally. President Paxson, where in your job description does it include “evaluating the strategic efficacy of student campaigns”?

    • Ra Ra Brunonia says:

      these donors are the reason we are all at school.

      • Well if our education is funded by people and institutions that systematically destroy communities and degrade the environment then that’s probably something we should talk about, huh!

  2. Paxson be Honest says:

    This is not a plea for an informed conversation. There has been a year of informed conversation. The ACCRIP decision is intended to be that informed conversation, and they have voted to recommend divestment. This letter is nothing more than another tactic to delay the inevitable.

    Divestment will not hurt the University’s endowment in any significant way. Brown University has divested in the past, and there was no change in the endowment. Furthermore, Paxson herself has stated that the University’s investments in these coal companies represent a miniscule fraction of our total endowment, and there is no solid argument against divestment because of financial reasons for coal. There are no “practical difficulties of monitoring which companies should be excluded from the portfolio”, once the corporation votes to divest, reinvestment will not occur without a formal process of introduction, there is no requirement of monitoring companies coal usage after divestment.

    Second, Paxson’s argument that “there are multiple points of view on the merits of divestiture, even among those who feel strongly that climate change is a serious concern”, is not very supportable. Yes there are people who argue against divestment who are concerned about climate change. But overwhelmingly people working on climate change have supported divestment. There are currently 300 University’s with ongoing fossil fuel divestment campaigns., the most notable nonprofit working on climate change, has pushed strongly in favor divestment. Our own representative, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, has supported fossil fuel divestment on the Senate floor. Climate change is extraordinarily urgent, and suggesting that ‘clean coal’, a technological fantasy that is even more ridiculous than suggesting that we should let markets decide the fate of our planet, shows that either Paxson has only a superficial understanding of both divestment and climate change, or she is trying to delay a corporation vote.

    Lastly, Paxson’s tone throughout the entire article makes it appear that there is a sizeable portion of the Brown community that disagrees with divestment. This completely belies the 2500 members of the Brown community who have signed on to the Divest Coal petition, and the hundreds of others who have put significant time into making this a prominent issue on campus. From student group support to rallies at University Hall, the community has shown overwhelming support for coal divestment, and yet Paxson still tries to make this a debated issue. If you oppose coal divestment Christina Paxson, say so, because hiding behind endless conversations and feigned logistical concerns is not going to work anymore.

  3. This approach to Divest Coal and to ACCRIP in general completely disregards Brown’s democratic process. A dangerous precedent is being set here, further removing socially responsible students from pushing for socially responsible investments at our university. While the old president was not always a friend of divestment movements, President Paxson has shown unprecedented hostility. This will change Brown’s campus atmosphere. After a semester into her presidency, Paxson has demonstrated to groups from uncontroversial (within Brown) Divest Coal to student labor alliance. It’s time we take a stand, Brown!

  4. Tom Bale '63 says:

    Dear President Paxson,
    What I think is missing from your statement is the sense of urgency that scientists (eg. James Hansen) are trying to impress upon us. I listen to them tell us global warming is creating changes far more quickly than was originally predicted. Our window of opportunity to do something is fast closing. I don’t know if you feel the same anxiety I do, but if you do I wish you would insist that your new ad hoc committee report to you before the May Corporation meeting. I would like to come back to my 50th reunion knowing that Brown had made the courageous decision on divestment, and become the true leader among Ivy League Universities.
    Tom Bale ’63

  5. Thank you President Paxson for handling this the right way. I wish this “open-minded” and “friendly” campus would stop attacking a position without considering the other side. Never did I think that coming to Brown would mean that I would have to conform to one idea.

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