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Campus reacts to coal decision

Activists decried the choice to maintain endowment investments in coal companies

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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