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University News

Campus reacts to coal decision

Activists decried the choice to maintain endowment investments in coal companies

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 28, 2013

Brown Divest Coal protested Friday afternoon before the Corporation decided against divestment.

The University will not divest its endowment from coal companies, President Christina Paxson wrote in a community-wide email Sunday. The Corporation found “the existence of social harm is a necessary but not sufficient rationale for Brown to divest,” Paxson wrote.

“At the end of the meeting, it became clear that we didn’t need to vote,” Paxson said. “The support for divestiture just wasn’t there.”

Paxson wrote in her email that she will create a task force to develop recommendations for ways the University could combat climate change.

“I thought we showed that the student voice was calling for divestment and that it mattered,” said Dara Illowsky ’14, a member of Brown Divest Coal. “But the Corporation didn’t care.”

Last night, in a meeting filled with “shock and frustration,” Divest Coal members decided to continue advocating for divestment.

“We’re not going away,” Illowsky said.


The build up

In a public letter in January, the University’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies urged Paxson to “publicly divest” from “the filthy 15,” a term coined by environmental activists to describe some of the largest U.S. coal companies.

The University’s investments in these companies total less than $2 million and comprise less than 0.1 percent of its total investments, The Herald previously reported.

Following past recommendations from ACCRIP, the University has previously decided to divest from HEI Hotels, tobacco companies and companies profiting from Darfur. The University’s deviation from ACCRIP recommendations is rare.

The Corporation heard arguments regarding whether the University should divest from coal late in May, The Herald previously reported.

Brown Divest Coal — one of 400 fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the United States, according to a Brown Divest Coal press release — was created last September with fewer than 10 members but has since grown in size and presence on campus.

In the year leading up to this decision, Brown Divest Coal held rallies and teach-ins, spoke with administrators and collected 3,600 signatures from community members in support of divestment.

“A lot of people, myself included, thought we had set up the discussion in a way that would be incredibly detrimental to the Corporation if they said no,” Illowsky said. “But they were not listening to the student voice.”

Brown Divest Coal requested that the five members of the Corporation who have financial ties to any of the 15 coal companies recuse themselves from all decision-making processes concerning divestment, but none acknowledged this request, according to a Brown Divest Coal press release issued Sunday.

Administrators and Corporation members denied any violation of the University’s rules and standards with respect to conflicts of interest.

Paxson called the recusal issue a “red herring,” claiming it was not “very relevant” to the discussion of divestment.

Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76 said there was “no dereliction of duty” in the meeting with respect to these conflicts.

Many students said they remain unconvinced.

“It’s clear that the decision was at least partly motivated by the profit of a few at the expense of many,” said Emma Hall ’16.

“There’s a logical fallacy here,” said Leah Pierson ’16, pointing out that the Corporation would not exist without the student body. “This should be a democracy, and it isn’t.”


Students react

Student reaction to the decision was largely negative, dominated by strong voices of outrage.

Many students interviewed said they are not convinced by Paxson’s arguments detailed in the email to the community. “They’re giving us all these long, drawn-out explanations about why this has no positive social impact, but that’s not the reason they’re choosing not to divest,” Pierson said. “They’re choosing not to divest because of Corporation ties.”

“It’s honestly condescending,” she added.

About 52 percent of undergraduates indicated their support for the goals of Brown Divest Coal in a Herald poll conducted this fall. Twelve percent of students who support Brown Divest Coal indicated their disapproval of Paxson, a higher rate of disapproval than that of the general student population.

“I’m stunned to learn that the facts I found so compelling and conclusions I presumed as obvious left our University officials unimpressed,” said Sam Keamy-Minor ’16. “I wish I had not taken the reasonableness of our officials for granted. I wish that I had picked up a drum and beat it with my classmates as they walked across the green in their protests.”

Few students interviewed actively support the Corporation’s decision, but some said they were not opposed.

“If our investment in coal enables us to do things like give students financial aid or renovate dorms, hire new professors or do more awesome research, then we shouldn’t divest,” said Hannah Liu ’16. “Do we really matter that much? Would we change things if we divested?” she added.

“The situation is not as simple as people make it seem,” wrote Raymon Baek ’14 in an email to The Herald, citing the time and consideration the Corporation devoted to the discussion of divestment and the University’s continued efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change as reasons for his support of the decision.

“The University is not going against what the Brown community believes in,” Baek wrote. “There is no single resolution that will make everyone happy … but the University is trying its best to optimize their options for everyone’s benefit.”

Pierson said she sees the decision as a consequence of capitalist values, out of place in an institution “painted as a hub of social change.”

“If we can’t dissociate ourselves from big businesses, how can we expect our government to make social change?”

The satire publication the Brown Noser released an online article last night entitled “Coal Companies Thrilled University Finally Acknowledges Their Voices.”


Faculty members react

In general, environmental science faculty members’ reactions were measured but disapproving.

Timothy Herbert, professor of geological sciences and chair of the department, said he disapproved of the Corporation’s decision, expressing his desire to see the University make a major commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Herbert participated in a forum held by Brown Divest Coal last year and discussed divestment at the Corporation’s meeting last spring.

“I don’t think energy is inherently evil,” Herbert said. “But I do come from the point of view that moving to an economy that emits far less carbon is vital.”

“We should be taking action, and divestiture is an appropriate step,” he added.

Leah VanWey, associate professor of sociology, said she respects the thoughtfulness of the Corporation’s process. “They stayed close to the fundamental mission of the University and applied its principles to this decision,” she said. Though the Corporation decided not to divest, VanWey said she was “heartened” by its creation of the Task Force on Brown’s Climate Change, which will work to expand the University’s efforts on environmental change and sustainability.

Sriniketh Nagavarapu, assistant professor of economics and environmental studies, echoed this sentiment, saying the decision was well thought-out given the complex nature of the issue.

J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology, said he appreciates that the issue had been discussed at length but expressed his disappointment with the decision.  Divestment is “a moral obligation,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

If Brown divested its investments in coal two years ago, when the issue first emerged, the University would have saved “millions in endowment that would have been lost because the coal industry’s market share in U.S. electricity production is collapsing as apparently cleaner and cheaper natural gas takes its place,” Roberts wrote. “We should be getting out before it collapses further.”

Nagavarapu said the more important question is how Brown can most productively address the issue of the negative impacts of coal while acknowledging the fact that coal-fired electricity is a critical part of the world economy.

“Brown might be able to do more as a single institution in curtailing its own energy consumption and supporting research and education in these areas than in divesting from coal,” Nagavarapu said.

But Roberts wrote, “We have been teaching about the issue for a quarter century. We must act on what we know, both on campus and in the ways we interact with the world beyond the university gates. That clearly includes our investments.”

“I would like to see Brown take on that challenge — not just under scientific study, but getting us down that very difficult road to a world that does not run on fossil fuels,” Herbert said.


Future protest?

While Paxson has ended the University’s discussion of divestment, student protest persists and may increase.

The decision has spurred fury from certain student groups, including Brown Divest Coal, the Student Labor Alliance and Brown Students for Justice in Palestine. Members from these groups and others met last night in the Faunce Underground to discuss a growing student perception that campus groups’ involvement in decision-making is superficial, Illowsky said.

Illowsky said the decision fueled her desire to refuse to let the Corporation “declare this issue a done deal.”

Though previously uninvolved with any campaigns, Keamy-Minor said he now plans to take part in the divestment cause and attended last-night’s meeting.

“The work I should have been doing all along … is fighting tooth-and-nail to ensure that I grow up in a sustainable world,” he said. “To ensure that the school I love leads the charge towards the future I want to live in.”


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  1. coalisnotnearlyasbadasitwas says:

    The President and Corporation are, of course, completely correct. It is so nice that they humor misguided students to such an extent, but that is why we need adults running the place, yes? I suppose every generation must protest something, I just wish it was something more productive in this case.

  2. students will act says:

    “Members from these groups and others met last night in the Faunce Underground to discuss a growing student perception that campus groups’ involvement in decision-making is superficial, Illowsky said.” To clarify: there were around 200 students packed into the underground. And they’re angry.

    Paxson is done here. The Corporation had better hold on tight.

    • comfortablestudentsyelling says:

      Now, that’s not terribly collegial. This is when protest becomes counterproductive: When a group is too far down a meaningless road and is only fueled by the desire to win a fight. I’d be more impressed with you honestly jumping up and down on the College Green and holding your breath so that everyone knows you are here and have a voice.

    • causeclutchers says:

      ha. HAHAHA. I can assure you, the vast majority of students do not care.

  3. Brown Divest Coal activists: you did a good job making your case, and you did not succeed. Please do continue to make it if you wish, but recognize that you do not run the university and that this is one of dozens of items that the President and Corporation addresses in running such a large and complex institution. You did not have a grand majority of students supporting you as the polls show, and you do not have a monopoly on righteousness. Accept the loss, re-strategize if you want, but remember this is a university that people pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend and it is not all about you or your cause.

    Personally, I think you should continue down the substandard investment returns route stated in the article. It would continue to show insight and respect, and not turn this into a monster which it does not need to be.

  4. Fact Checker says:

    “If our investment in coal enables us to do things like give students
    financial aid or renovate dorms, hire new professors or do more awesome
    research, then we shouldn’t divest,” said Hannah Liu ’16. <– Fact: COAL DIVESTMENT WILL NOT HURT OUR ENDOWMENT!!!! Please use evidence to back up your statements! According to Marisa Quinn, Vice President for Public Affairs and University Relation, “Brown has less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the endowment invested in
    a small number of the companies cited by the Brown Divest Coal student
    group, or less than $2 million." Coal divestment will not hurt financial aid, research, etc. Rather, Brown divesting would make a huge public statement that it is unethical to support an industry that is causing over 13,000 people to die each year and is a huge driver of climate change. BROWN DIVEST COAL!!!

  5. Student Power! says:

    “At the end of the meeting, it became clear that we didn’t need to
    vote,” Paxson said. “The support for divestiture just wasn’t there.” <- How did she know that the support for divestment was not there if there wasn't a vote???

  6. on paxson's note says:

    Bravo to Paxson for dispensing with this nonsense, and for taking the time to dissect their adolescent arguments. Lord knows that’s tedious to do.

    I’m less happy, though, to see her jumping with both feet into the climate change hysteria, endorsing political activism as a goal of the University.

    “There is no question in my mind that human-caused environmental change and the threat it poses to sustaining life on earth is among the most pressing issues of our time.” No question in her mind? SUSTAINING LIFE ON EARTH??? Do these nutters listen to themselves?

  7. If you want to understand the divesters, read “Radical Chic” by Tom Wolfe. Any random cause will do for these kids, since it’s nothing more than a fashion accessory for their persona. One year it’s Darfur, the next it’s the library workers, the next it’s coal. They clutch at each cause with equal glee. They have always dreamed of coming to Brown and becoming self-righteous “activists” and weee look at them–they’re doing it! And Paxson is taking them seriously!

  8. Tom Bale '63 says:

    I am deeply disappointed in the decision of President Paxson and the Corporation not to divest. And, I am equally troubled this Administration has missed entirely the whole point of divestment: coal and the rest of the fossil fuel industry have overwhelmed congressional politics with its vast sums of campaign donations. As a result our federal leaders for the most part have utterly failed us in dealing with the havoc global warming is bringing to Earth. Divestment is an attempt to throw a search light on this failed leadership. In the face of this negligence in Washington how can Brown not address this leadership crisis? President Paxson does not even mention this in her letter to the Brown community. In her attempt to construct a rationale why Brown will not divest she unwittingly has joined this vacuum of leadership in Washington. It is a sorry day for all the Brown students, faculty, and alumni hoping that Brown would stand out from the conventional responses of so many of its sister universities. Instead the Administration has joined their ranks. Where can we turn for wisdom and bold leadership to save our environment?

    • did you even read the letter? says:

      Actually, she does mention it. In fact, the entire letter is a response to the argument you are making. She says that divestment is stupid because it is in no way related to your stated aims–it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of accomplishing anything, including “throwing a search light” on failed leadership.

  9. hopefulalum says:

    I suspect that continuing to push for divestment will be entirely fruitless, and I hope that students can turn some of that energy to holding Paxson accountable to her promise of “bold and aggressive” alternative responses to climate change.

  10. Disappointing. I feel ashamed of Brown.

    S. Metcalf, Brown ’75

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