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Letters to the Editor

Letters: Community responds to U.’s decision not to divest from coal

Monday, October 28, 2013

In deciding not to divest from companies involved in the production of coal, President Christina Paxson and the Corporation are ignoring the voices of students, faculty and staff members and alums, as well as the opinion of their own advisory committee. Paxson’s letter to the community acknowledges the serious harm coal use does to our planet, yet she refuses to take the step of divestiture. Her assertion that Brown’s investments are small and won’t matter to the companies is a weak argument. Every significant change starts with small steps. Those small steps add up, a tipping point is reached and eventually the big change occurs. Paxson’s argument that coal use is complicated and divestiture is too simplistic a step is condescending. Her counterargument of tobacco is a poor one. Though tobacco use is now recognized as a social harm, there are those who would argue that it, too, is a complex issue.

In general, Paxson has shown little regard for her students, faculty and alums. Her letters to the community on this and other issues try to pat students on the back for their environmental activism — while also working in direct opposition. She has missed an opportunity to continue Brown’s leadership in social, political and environmental arenas.

As a third generation alum and Brown parent, I am deeply disappointed.

Susan Izeman ’81 P’13


The business-as-usual  response to the Brown Divest Coal call for divestment shows an appalling narrowness in the Corporation’s concept of its mission. The powerful fossil fuel industry has used its immense wealth to influence the actions of political leaders and journalists, and it’s up to institutions like Brown to use their moral and intellectual authority to call attention to the need for profound changes.

The floods, droughts and storms are already here. They are causing the most harm to the world’s poorest people. The problem of climate change is a daunting one, and it will take many years to make the adjustments needed to address it. Brown’s Corporation didn’t have the courage to act this time. But this problem isn’t going to go away any time soon, and the years to come will give it many chances to reconsider their position.

Nancy Sleator ’72


Though I was among the first to sign Brown Divest Coal’s petition, I accept the determination that this case did not meet the criteria for divestment. But I do not accept President Christina Paxson’s specious argument regarding the social value of coal as a factor in that verdict.

In her letter to the community, Paxson asserted that “cessation of the production and use of coal would itself create significant economic and social harm to countless communities across the globe.” In the next paragraph, she states that “divestiture would not have a direct effect on the companies in question.” The latter statement makes the former irrelevant. Divestiture would not produce a supposedly deleterious cessation of production, and pretending otherwise both trivializes the social and economic conflicts surrounding fossil fuels and insults our intelligence. Nobody believes the University is not divesting from coal for fear of interrupting global development.

Emma Dixon ’13


The administration is throwing our generation under the bus out of political cowardice. It has failed abysmally to mount arguments that come anywhere near meeting the logical and ethical standards we are held to in Brown classrooms. Corporation members with significant financial ties to the coal industry did not recuse themselves from the discussion. Everyone at this school should be thinking long and hard about how — and in whose interest — our university is being run. If administrators think the Brown Divest Coal campaign is going away, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Gabriel Schwartz ’13


The Corporation’s decision shows a clear willingness to disregard student voice, student groups and its own University body — the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy. I’m ashamed to be part of this institution, and I’m ready to change that and make sure Brown divests.

Trevor Culhane ’15


We’ve already got a Strategic Sustainability and Advisory Committee, an Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy and an Ad-Hoc Committee on Coal Divestment. Now Paxson is adding the Task Force on Brown’s Response to Climate Change. Our administration has an inordinate fondness for creating committees. If only it felt the same way about leadership.

Emily Kirkland ’13


This decision is motivated by the administration’s political conservatism on economic issues.

Masked by relatively liberal views on social issues, the administration’s tradition of conservative activism in other areas has received little attention. Through our membership in the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a corporate lobby, we have consistently advocated for right-wing economic policies at the state level — most notably the 2006 tax cuts for the rich. At the federal level, we were the university that sued under Bush’s National Labor Relations Board to take away the rights of graduate students at private colleges to unionize.

Paxson has also provided funding and support for Common Sense Action, a student group supporting hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson’s campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare.

I do not share Paxson’s political conservatism on economic issues, but I fully support her right to express those views.

What does concern me is her unwillingness to share her real motivations for opposing divestment. Instead of laying out her actual beliefs in clear, readable prose, she has chosen to hide her intentions behind a morass of vague and flowery language. Paxson should be open and honest about the real reason Brown refuses to divest from coal — the administration’s conservatism.

Samuel Bell GS


President Christina Paxson and the Corporation made an immoral decision this weekend by choosing not to divest Brown from coal companies. Climate change is the most important issue of our generation, and divestment is one first step Brown must take to make a statement.

I hope my fellow students and the entire Brown community make known to our president their anger at this decision and their determination to continue the fight for divestment. As Brown’s essential purpose is the development of young people, our administrators cannot claim to be leaders when they have just betrayed the generation they are here to serve.

Climate change will not be solved by research and education, as Paxson claimed today. It is far too immediate an issue for that. We need large action now, and it is shameful to be associated with a university that is too cowardly or too immoral to take a stand.

Solomon Goldstein-Rose ’16


I’m about to teach high school in a low-income community of color, the kind of community most likely to agitate for radical change and the kind of community disproportionately harmed by environmental racism. I hope to acquaint my students with the power and potential of activism, but it’s decisions like the Corporation’s vote not to divest from coal that sap that hope. If the Corporation of one of the most elite and so-called progressive universities in the world can’t live up to its own research or to its own chartered commitment to “usefulness and purpose” and “sustainability,” then what hope have we to advocate for change among the rest of the corporate and political elites in power, many of whom aren’t even convinced of climate change’s existence, let alone its social harms? This decision — motivated by cowardice and greed — will forever be a mark of this University’s deliberate failure to do the right thing.

Kurt Ostrow ’13


Like much of the community, I was quite disappointed to hear this afternoon of the Corporation’s decision regarding divestment from coal companies. But given that only six of the hundreds of campus divestment campaigns across the country have secured commitments from their administrations, Brown’s choice is an unfortunately typical one for a university whose track record in such issues is atypical. The decision was not shocking, just painfully mediocre.

Will Herrmann ’12


The Corporation’s decision is hugely disappointing. We need leading universities to serve as powerful leaders on issues of sustainability, climate change and social justice. This decision equates to nothing more than an apathetic stance on the most pressing issue of our generation.

Dylan Cole-Kink ’17


I am quite disturbed that the Corporation chose to ignore the views of the majority of Brown students and of the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies in choosing to continue to invest in an industry that kills thousands of people in the United States alone, destroys ecosystems through mining and is a huge contributor to global warming. Unfortunately, many of the people most harmed by the coal industry are either those too poor to speak up or those who live in developing nations where they have limited abilities to initiate change. As a forward-thinking university, it is our duty to be their voices. We cannot continue to use the slogan “Boldly Brown” while simultaneously reinforcing a status quo that is so clearly socially and environmentally harmful.

Gabriel Buchsbaum ’17 


I am gravely disappointed in the Corporation for its decision not to divest from coal despite the unethical implications the decision entails and a broad student demand for responsibility. Among the justifications for not divesting was the claim that divestment is an ineffective approach and that coal is a crucial component of economic progress and overall world development. But how can a campus advocate being sustainable and efficient when it maintains investments in the coal industry? This hypocrisy destroys our legitimacy and continues to commit us to the wrong side of history. Though coal has played a very influential role historically and presently, the short term benefits of continuing to rely on coal do not outweigh the long term consequences. Divesting will do two things. It will send a clear message that it is time to shift our energy usage away from coal and galvanize other campuses to do the same, amplifying the message.

Alan Gorchov Negron ’17


I graduated from Brown in 2012, and I am currently in the process of completing a PhD at Stanford University studying the effects of climate change on marine life. One thing that is abundantly clear is that we don’t have much room for error, and cowardly and backward-thinking decisions like President Christina Paxson’s decision to block Brown’s divestment from fossil fuels do a disservice to Brown’s legacy as a leader in responding to global crises. Paxson: I know you are relatively new as president, so perhaps you haven’t had enough time to get to know the community. But as someone who spent more time there than you have, I am entirely unimpressed. It isn’t too late to change your mind.

Noah Rose ’12


Reading President Christina Paxson’s email this afternoon was heartbreaking. After working on the Brown Divest Coal Campaign since its inception and being involved in what seemed to be logical and productive dialogues with representatives from all sides of the issue, my hopes for this Corporation meeting were high. I watched as the campaign blossomed from 10 or 12 uncertain students having confused discussions about divestment to a movement of over 100 passionate, aware, dedicated activists giving their energy to a cause in which they sincerely believe. To me, it seemed that this tangible vivacity that had pervaded the Brown community could not be ignored by its leaders. Evidently, our voices did not carry the weight we imagined they would. But understanding that student support alone would not be enough, what I believed would truly guarantee a just decision at Friday’s meeting was the most recent Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies letter.

The Corporation’s audacious decision to disregard the recommendation of ACCRIP — a committee formed for no other purpose than to examine the issues of ethical and moral responsibility in Brown’s investment policies — was unprecedented. Never before have ACCRIP’s divestment recommendations been ignored, and the fact that it happened today, in relation to an issue as calamitous and urgent as climate change, was a painful reminder of the extent to which corporate power dictates so many facets of our lives.

Kari Malkki ’16


This was a catastrophic decision that damages Brown’s reputation as a leader in environmental sustainability and as an institution that is receptive to students’ principles. President Christina Paxson’s argument that Brown should simply confront climate change from a political or technological approach is a ruse that distracts from our ongoing support of fossil fuels. Today, I am ashamed to call Brown home. Paxson’s failure to support the Brown community is a disgrace to this institution.

Jonah Berkowitz ’17

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  1. Thanks to the many letter-writers and the BDH for printing them. I’m a Brown alum (’02) and very disappointed by the decision–I’d expect Brown to be more forward-minded, and Kari Malkki’s point that this is the first time the administration has ever ignored ACCRIP’s recommendation. Samuel Bell GS’s background on the administration’s ties to Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and Common Sense Action are more disturbing still. Given Brown University’s long history of activism and social justice advocacy, one wonders exactly what else is being done under our noses–and in our names.

  2. name withheld for job security says:

    Just because the University has a history of progressiveness and promoting change does not mean the Corporation is obligated to buy into every liberal cause the student body can come up with. They have an duty to Brunonians present and future to make decisions in the best interests of the University. And simply put, if they feel that divestment would have a bigger impact on the University than on the issue, they have the obligation to make that decision accordingly.

    This is exactly why the Corporation is so “old”. College-age students don’t have the long-view of most situations- and that view gets shorter with each generation.

    • A Concerned Young Human says:

      Except the University made a committee to make this decision and it said to divest from coal, and Paxson actively contradicted it.

      It gets shorter with each generation? That’s a mighty large generalization to make. Rather, I’d think that with the information the internet affords, the ability to get across peer-reviewed and intellectually-approved thought and concepts being greater than ever before in human history, and the very real and valid criticisms that young people make of 1) energy problems, 2) sexual bias, 3) racism, and 4) political corruption on a regular basis as opposed to the “old” folks that seem to have 1) continued an unhealthy and illogical dependency on fossil fuels, 2) continued to enforce negative sexual stereotypes, 3) frequently have reinforced systematic racism, and 4) are the ones that caused/ let the recent shutdown occur, the view of our generation would actually be much larger than any other before it.

      So before you generalize this as, “Oh, they’re just kids, the older you are the smarter you are”, look at what the elderly generations regularly dump on us younger folks as the right thing to do. It isn’t just one way. Every generation makes awful decisions, just like every human, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or religion, has the potential to be evil. Just because you happen to belong to a particular group doesn’t mean you can discount another’s view.

      Now, if we could engage with the actual problem at hand instead of poking the straw man of The Irresponsibly Liberal College Toddler, I think this conversation could be productive.

      • learnyourbrownpolitics says:

        1. ACCRIP is an advisory committee. period. they do not have binding authority on the corporation. The corporation makes decisions because they control the direction of the endowment. ACCRIP was created to advise!

        2. Paxson didn’t simply contradict ACCRIP, the corporation voted…

        • A Concerned Young Human says:

          Alright, cool, cool. The main problem still stands that the group made what I see as the wrong choice here in many ways, with Paxson as their spokesperson and defender.

          First, I feel that if an advisory committee is made, its advice should be taken. If it isn’t, then the possibility that there was a decision before the committee came to an advisory conclusion is introduced, a possibility I don’t like and which suggests inherent bias or corporate cloak-and-daggery. The implication in that theoretical scenario is that the committee was an attempt to placate the concerns of the college students without actually risking actual policy change. That is one of the messages I get from this act. Another is that the corporation, despite moral, economic, and political evidence to the contrary, believes it knows better in all of those regards to the large group of students, faculty, and other advisory members that put their efforts into proving to Brown the need for an intellectual powerhouse as it fancies itself to be to divest. That is even more repugnant. Another option is that they honestly don’t care either way, and that this decision was made flippantly and without regard to the PR nightmare that it’s become, further crystalizing the movement against Brown’s investment in coal, a very unwise decision indeed. Another option is that it was done with an attitude similar to the poster I originally responded to, with an aim to crack down on opinions too different from the corporation’s own, which is close-minded and, frankly, disrespectful of the very bright and (mostly) hardworking student population the Corporation is supposed to work in the best interests of.

          I don’t find any of these options appealing ways for leadership to conduct itself at my alma mater.

        • For the record, the corporation didn’t vote

  3. annoyedasheck says:

    yes, the Corporation should suboptimally diversify our endowment portfolio just because some liberal students found a new cause to get passionate about. nope. they’re much more qualified to make these decisions than you. grow up.

    • investmentbanker says:

      Actually, portfolios without coal outperform those with it included. Divesting from coal is morally correct, but it is also financially correct. Everyone is shedding their coal shares–not for the environmental reasons but for the fiscal ones! Look it up.

  4. bwahahahahaha says:

    These people are nuts. The page reads like an Onion article. Such rich parodies of themselves.

    • privilege or status should not discount a person’s aim to preserve life or do good. it saddens me to think that you’d laugh at people for caring about social justice. whether you agree or not, you should respect anyone’s efforts to make positive change.

      • bwahahahahaha says:

        i wouldn’t laugh…except that what you’re trying to do would neither “preserve life” nor “do good” nor do anything for “social justice.” which i think was paxson’s point.

        but that’s not even the funny part. the funny part is how puffed up they all are over nothing — “catastrophic decision”…”ashamed to be a part of this institution”…”corporate power dictates every aspect of our lives”…”audacious decision”….the “tangible vivacity!”..”environmental racism!”

        had the corporation decided to kowtow to this peculiar fetish and divest, precisely *no one* outside of your little clique would have noticed. And next week you’d be back with some new demands on the school’s investment portfolio.

        you know, there are real things you could spend your free time doing that would actually help people.

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