Brown Divest Coal: An open letter to President Paxson and the Corporation

Guest Columnists
Monday, November 4, 2013


We regret your decision. We regret your continued and deliberate willingness to invest in an industry quickly consigning our generation to life on an inhospitable planet. Understand that you do so in defiance of thousands of students, hundreds of faculty members and members of the Brown community all over the world. You do so in defiance of your own Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, which concluded, “The companies recommended for divestment perpetrate grave, indeed egregious, social harm, and there is no possible way to square our profiting from such harm with the values and principles of the University.” This conversation is not over. We will divest from coal.

We reject both of your critiques. First, the coal industry’s harms are, in fact, “sufficiently grave” to warrant divestment, regardless of divestment’s symbolic value. Yes, “the reality is that (coal) still provides 40 percent of global electricity.” But if coal-driven climate change continues unchecked, the reality is that we could lose as much as 20 percent of global gross domestic product. It is precisely coal’s embeddedness in our energy system that makes it so dangerous.

It will take vision and leadership to get us off coal in time. This week, you demonstrated neither. Remember that we only developed manufacturing technology that did not rely on child labor after social outcry demanded an end to the practice. Instead of demanding change, your short-sighted response shackles us to an unsustainable status quo of mountaintop removal, lethal air pollution and climate change that has pushed us to the brink of ecological collapse and massive human suffering.

You argue second that divestment would not send an effective message because it lacks a comprehensive policy agenda to overhaul the global energy economy. This is an impossible standard. A recent Oxford study showed the coal industry is so harmful we cannot in good conscience continue to profit from it. Of course divestment is a means, not an end. How we expedite the transition away from coal to mitigate climate change and avert disaster indeed calls for research and education to which Brown should contribute. But that research and education must not coincide with the coal industry’s continued malpractice and must not disguise and rationalize inaction. Your refusal to divest condones an industry that makes its money marginalizing people here and abroad. How you reconcile this choice with Brown’s mission to “serve the community, the nation and the world” is unclear to us.

We were taken aback by your mention of lunch counter sit-ins as a foil to coal divestment. This appropriation of civil rights protests is opportunistic and ahistorical — not to mention ironic. In the same way you admit coal’s harms while saying no to divestment, white moderates in the 1960s claimed to support integration and equal rights while decrying sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Just as their moderation looks like cowardice and hypocrisy today, your rejection of divestment will look the same when half of Florida, and the vast majority of its economy, is underwater.

Your compliments regarding our “commitment and purpose” are condescending. Time and again you invoked the campaign, without our consent, to promote Brown’s “spirit of open discussion” to donors and prospective students. Meanwhile, you attempted to end this community’s commitment to divestment in a closed-door meeting that welcomed zero students or faculty members but welcomed at least five Corporation members with significant financial ties to the coal industry. And then, you didn’t even take a vote.

Concluding your letter with an allusion to the “social choice fund” was especially cynical — an immoral equivocation to keep donations rolling in. This hedging admits to the community that investment in coal ethically compromises the rest of Brown’s investments. Socially responsible investment should be the rule, not the exception.

We have gone through your established channels — bureaucratic machinery designed to sap the energy from every campaign on campus fighting for social justice — and they have yielded exactly nothing. You say that you are creating a task force to identify “bold and aggressive ways” in which Brown “can lead … the societal response to climate change.” And we have an idea to get the task force started: Divest From Coal.

We will see you at the next Corporation meeting, and every one after that, until you act in a way that bespeaks the conviction and conscience of your faculty members, alums and students.

Yours in Protest,

Brown Divest Coal


Brown Divest Coal stands in solidarity with students across campus demanding accountability from our administration.


  1. To the members of Brown Divest Coal who wrote this,

    I think your goals are admirable and your intentions more than defensible, but this type of letter makes the movement look not like the work of thoughtful scientists advocating for reform to maintain our planet, but a mob of melodramatic, uncompromising children more concerned with ‘winning’ than with really enacting change. I am a member of BDC and it has frustrated me that our meetings very often are little more than an affirmation that “We are right and we will win”, which not only makes me (and several other members I’ve spoken with) uncomfortable with the unblinking and dogmatic certitude with which we pursue divestiture, but also makes me think that eventually (if there is no change) the immaturity and quite honestly threatening nature of our tactics will be the downfall of the movement at Brown.

    As a side-note, the constant disparagement of President Paxson has to stop. It is catalyzing the development of a toxic relationship between the students and the university and distracts from the fact that the reasoning Paxson’s letter was actually quite fair, regardless of your view on divestiture. She made the argument of an economist, which is fitting because that is where push-back is coming from in the real world, not other climate activists. By continuing to assume Paxson is a coward or villain who simply doesn’t comprehend the ‘evils of coal’, we argue orthogonally to those offering justifiable resistance to divestiture; we are insulating ourselves in a bubble of unwavering moral conviction, and as a result are not developing more advanced arguments or more practical reform options, but repeating to ourselves over and over and over again that “We are right, opposing coal is evil, we will win”, which is honestly not that different than the behavior of House Republicans who have voted to defund Obamacare 40+ times and refuse to come to the tables and really work out a compromise of any kind.

    What is so sad is that I know that BDC is NOT a group that needs to rely on threatening, condescending, and frankly way over-the-top letters such as this one. We are smart and capable of recognizing that Paxson’s letter underscores that there are some tenable arguments against divestiture, and that if we want to succeed in the end, we have to find compelling responses. For now I am disappointed in the leaders of BDC for this letter, but I have faith we can grow and mature in a way that ultimately allows us to make positive changes on campus without this type of caustic and unproductive rhetoric.

    • Concerned Student says:

      Please try to talk sense into the rest of Divest Coal. I support their cause, but I’m really concerned that they’re going to do something extreme that will basically preclude the administration from reconsidering at all. Both this movement + the protestors are being taken over by some really radical voices, and I’m fairly certain that students sympathetic to both campaigns are going to be turned off if the response is too extreme.

    • Paxson! Is that you?

    • confused and concerned says:

      This letter was written as a group, with ample time for anyone who cared to edit it to do so. If this is how you feel as a (supposed) member of Brown Divest Coal, I would encourage you to speak up before such a letter, should we be compelled to write another one, is published. Better to make a fuss within the group than to wait to make a fuss on an anonymous comment thread and risk compromising the image of the group and reception of this letter. Your comment implies that the group is run as an oligarchy where a few people dictate our direction and actions, which is certainly not true. I hope that you find the courage to speak up and express these concerns at the next BDC meeting. I am sure everyone in the group would be happy to listen.

  2. “Remember that we only developed manufacturing technology that did not rely on child labor after social outcry demanded an end to the practice.”

    I’m confused by this statement. Are you suggesting that there was a time when manufacturing technology required the use of children? Like the machines couldn’t fit full-sized adults so people demanded adult-compatible technology?

  3. New Leadership Needed says:

    This is a poor reflection of the movement, and as a member of Brown Divest Coal I hope that we can regroup and avoid generating public statements like this one in the future. The way to divestiture is not through whiny, self-important ranting.

    • confused and concerned says:

      This letter was written as a group, with ample time for anyone who cared to edit it to do so. If this is how you feel as a (supposed) member of Brown Divest Coal, I would encourage you to speak up before such a letter, should we be compelled to write another one, is published. Better to make a fuss within the group than to wait to make a fuss on an anonymous comment thread and risk compromising the image of the group and reception of this letter.

      • This is worth attention says:

        The BDC leadership has gotten too extreme and I know several other BDC members who tried to caution against running this in the BDH. The reason the image of the group is getting compromised is because there is a faction in the leadership that makes the rest of us in BDC uncomfortable with the direction of the group.

  4. More than Justified says:

    Thank you Brown Divest Coal. This letter was more than justified. After a year and a half of incredibly well-organized and “civil” campaigning, you were snubbed categorically in a meeting from which you were deliberately excluded–I’m surprised, frankly, that you’ve shown the restraint you have. Paxson’s arguments were very weak, either misconstruing the purpose of divestment, or robbing Brown of it’s ability to stand up for its values, even if it is not politically convenient. They tolerate grave injustice, and uncritically recapitulate the status quo. You got it exactly right: the embededness of coal the administration is hiding behind is exactly the problem divestment would address.

    This letter wasn’t “angry” or “whiny” (although these same tired criticisms have been hurled at pretty much every campaign in the history of social justice working to overhaul the status quo)–it was cogent and outraged, and for good reason. It was also pretty obviously not “dogmatic”–it clearly responded to Paxson’s letter with enumerated counter-aguments. BUT THIS IS NOT THE POINT. To Yipes et al: please read anything on the history of social movements in this country. If you believe that rational argument alone is enough to get those in power to correct an injustice, you have swallowed a fallacy with a long pedigree of unsuccessfully stymeing movements that call for real, uncomfortable change (not at all to equate the movements, but MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail might be a useful reference). As last week’s vote made clear, the Corporation has all the power in this situation, and students have almost none. And the Corporation is failing us. Divest Coal (in it’s initial Open Letter) and ACCRIP have already made phenomenal arguments–if you haven’t already, go ahead and actually read those documents.

    Kudos to Brown Divest Coal for standing up for what they believe in, even if it uncomfortable, even if it is scary to step outside the formal system set up by the institution they’re trying to change. This, frankly, has been a long time coming.

    • Yipes again says:

      Rational argument is a necessary though not always sufficient condition for substantive change. BDC’s repetition of ‘we are right, we will divest, etc.’ may be justified, but it evades the points made by Paxson in her letter, and therefore not enough to merit a change.

    • Please consider this says:

      Doubt is a crucial part of strengthening the core of a movement. The strongest movements are able to take a moment to consider, however fleeting, the possibility that its aims are not worth pursuing, and then move on to either continue the battle for change or relent. BDC has proceeded without doubt, and this is what is uncomfortable, not the aims of the organization, and not even really the tactics, but the deep, underlying tendency to pursue a goal, almost rabidly, without any room for doubt.

      • That’s total nonsense. Just because Divest Coal is not holding doubt rallies doesn’t mean it does not constantly test the strength of its own arguments.

  5. Nicholas Carter says:

    What struck me about President Paxson’s letter to the Brown community was how weak her explanations of the Corporation’s decision were. “But coal is a major part of the global economy” isn’t a meaningful rebuttal to “Let’s work to make coal no longer a major part of the global economy.” And the point of divestment isn’t – and can’t be – presenting a detailed model for how to get to a renewable energy economy from our current, unsustainable practices. To claim that that should be the aim of divestment, and then refuse to divest because doing so wouldn’t serve that goal, sounds a bit silly. Were the leaders of Brown University really persuaded by these arguments?

    I suggest that the reason the arguments against divestment in President Paxson’s letter fall flat is that the decision not to vote on divestment was made for other reasons. Since that decision happened in a closed meeting, we can only speculate about what the deciders’ actual motivations were, but I can certainly think of much sounder reasons not to divest than the odd supposition that the symbolism would be unclear. For instance, since divestment would unambiguously send the message that coal is an unethical investment, Corporation members who disagreed with that message might have opposed divestment for that reason. Even members who didn’t care for coal might have anticipated being asked to divest from other politically controversial holdings that were more important to them. They may have feared that agreeing to divest in this instance would set two precedents that they found undesirable: that the Corporation could be forced to act by student and faculty activists, and that divestment would become a more common activist tactic.

    Now, imagine that Paxson had circulated a letter saying, “The Corporation and I want to do our job without interference from student activists. We don’t like divestment as a tactic, we don’t want to be pressured like this in the future, and many of us actually think coal is just fine.” Such a letter might have been a more honest statement of the Corporation’s aims and motives, but it would have been a terrible public relations move. The Corporation’s decision is disgraceful, and President Paxson’s letter likely disingenuous, but Brown Divest Coal can take comfort in the fact that their adversaries are playing a well-established game with known rules. When the cost in social capital of refusing to divest gets high enough, the Corporation’s fears of sending an ambiguous message or crashing the world economy by divesting will vanish like the phantoms they always were.

    • to unpack the statement: “But coal is a major part of the global economy” is onerous and likely above most people’s understanding to be honest. Nor would they care. You need to know about how sovereign wealth funds work and their massive impacts in global markets. The global distribution of natural gas resources. The difficulties in transporting natural gas internationally. The fact that “developing” industrial nations like India and China by far rely on coal and use sovereign wealth funds to source coal. That the US has been on track to dramatically cut its use on coal from 2010s 60% to this years 40% and further on down to 20%. That reduced US demand hasn’t changed global demand.

      Do you expect Brown Divest Coal to even entertain such arguments?

      • Nicholas Carter says:

        I’m not involved with BDC, so I don’t know for sure, but my impression is that those considerations aren’t relevant to what they’re trying to accomplish. As I understand it, the point of divestment is to socially stigmatize the production and use of coal – to get the educated, affluent, cosmopolitan people whose interests are overrepresented in American government to think of using coal as something dirty and irresponsible, something that well-meaning people and institutions shouldn’t want to be involved in, like cockfighting or South African apartheid. As the social stigma attached to coal grows, you would expect to see more changes in public policy, including, eventually, strong international pressure against coal mining and use, but that’s a long-term goal.

        The divestment debate at Brown has never been about the immediate economic consequences of divestment, but rather about whether Brown should be publicly seen to disapprove of coal the way it disapproved, as an institution, of discrimination against gay and lesbian people in the military by disallowing military recruitment on campus. Brown’s institutional stance didn’t lead directly to the end of “don’t ask/don’t tell,” but it was one part of a larger, generational trend among America’s elites towards thinking of homophobia as something ugly. I think the real issue is that powerful members of Brown’s institutional leadership don’t want people to think of coal in that way.

        • It IS relevant because the campaign quite shrilly went on and on about Brown’s divestiture as an important signal not for moral reasons alone (as suggested by apartheid and don’t ask examples) but also for the economic-environmental implications. The argument went like this: If we can get schools to divest and send a moral signal, we’ll be able to eradicate dirty coal use. So, understanding how coal is a major part of the global economy is important when making such claims.

          I am not advocating to keep coal stake. I am advocating that BDC get really educated and make better arguments. They’re on a trajectory towards failure.

          As for your assertion people have something to financially gain by keeping coal on the endowment 2 things:
          1. back that up because its important to illustrate why
          2. $2M of a $3 billion endowment and a larger multi-trillion dollar global market means little. As I went on about before, the global market is huge. Incentives for using up political clout for something that’s not even a drop in the bucket is absurd.

          When you question the corporation’s motives you should also ask about Tom Steyer who has used and BDC to protest Keystone XL and protect his (and Kinder Morgan Canada’s) interest in the Transmountain pipeline. When it comes to energy policy its very murky and gray. Knowledge is the only way to stay afloat.

          • Nicholas Carter says:

            We seem to agree about the economic facts. We both know that Brown is not by itself able to make a dent in the world coal market, and that coal is not especially economically important to the University. We also agree that any economic impacts of a larger divestment campaign, to include Brown but also many other institutions, would only be felt in the long term, as the attitudes of people connected to the global power elite gradually changed.

            Now, that all being so, what harm would it do anyone for Brown to divest? It wouldn’t hurt our endowment, and the Chinese government could keep smogging up East Asia as usual. In my earlier post, I suggested a few outcomes that members of the Corporation might have perceived as harmful, including the possibility that a successful divestment campaign would lead to other such campaigns in the future. It’s also clear that there are people who think the coal industry is basically harmless, all in all, and that encouraging people to disapprove of coal is harmful. Maybe the Corporation includes some such misinformed people. Maybe it includes people who are just ideologically opposed to anything “the left” wants. You’ll notice that I didn’t claim that opposition to divestment can only have been motivated by financial gain – after all, the Corporation met in private when it decided not to vote on the issue, so we can’t even know how specific members would have voted, much less why.

            However, it is a fact that some people and institutions are much more heavily invested in coal than Brown is. They will lose stupendous amounts of money on those investments unless (1) that coal is mined and sold or (2) they can sell off those investments to someone else, who will lose the money instead. A successful campaign to socially stigmatize coal would, over the long term, make both of those things less likely. It’s also a fact that some of those people are members of the Corporation. None of these things is in dispute. Nor is it in dispute that those same Corporation members were asked to recuse themselves from the divestment decision. My understanding, which may be mistaken, is that they did not respond. Again, I cannot and do not claim to know that members of the Corporation considered their own financial interests in deciding not to go on the record with a vote on divestment. But you’re an economist – what would a rational actor do?

          • Looking at decision-making is a funny thing. Standard economic models with an assumed rational actor rarely hold water in many situations. Behavioral economics is a rather interesting branch looking at the experimental outcomes of decisions to develop a better cognitive model of human decision making. Dan Arielly likes to call people “predictably irrational.”

            We are in agreement. My thoughts on BDC is that they’ve failed to answer a lot of the non-environmental concerns of the corporation. As you’ve pointed out the people voting very likely did not have all the relevant data and arguments on the economic and political ramifications of divesting. They had preconceived notions that went unchallenged because students did not consider their audience. That is the tragedy at hand.

  6. Tom Bale '63 says:

    President Paxson and the Corporation have handled the divestment issue poorly. You have hardened the lines against the demand of these students for the leaders of Brown and the rest of the nation to stand up and lead us away from the environmental chaos gathering across the globe. In doing so you have revealed that the Administration has no strategy of substance to deal with this crisis. What is Brown Divest Coal supposed to do now?
    Across the nation an organization called CREDO has been planning for civil disobedience in the face of the failure of Congress to act to protect our nation and Earth from the catastrophic consequences of global warming. So far 76,000 citizens, and I am one of them, have pledged their participation if it should come to this. What else can we do when our leaders fail us so abjectly? By rejecting the divestment campaign with no viable alternative President Paxson has only stiffened the resolve of the BDC group. I can understand that “Yipes” along with others below is nervous about where this protest is going. I am nervous, too. I love Brown, and want to support its leaders. But, this environmental issue trumps all other considerations.
    As an alumnus I ask President Paxson to contact the Corporation members, and ask them to reconvene, meeting once again with BDC students to reconsider divestment. The issue is too important not to take this unusual step.

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