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Paxson: Next steps in the consideration of divestment

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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