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Editorial: Disappointment with divestment decision

Last Sunday, President Christina Paxson informed the Brown community of the Corporation’s decision not to divest the University’s endowment from its holdings in large coal companies. Many were disappointed, given the strength and energy of the campaign by student activist group Brown Divest Coal and the supportive report produced by the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy. With clear evidence asserting both the coal industry’s contribution to global climate change and coal’s harmful effects on health, we hope the Corporation will revisit the decision and critically address its financial ties to some of the companies in question. The University may have lost an important opportunity to lead on this issue, but we are hopeful that campaigns at other Ivy League schools will encourage the Corporation to keep pace. And while the members of Brown Divest Coal are certainly disappointed, we hope their energetic and enthusiastic campaign will continue to press the Corporation on this and other on-campus environmental efforts.

Brown’s investment in coal, as a fraction of its overall endowment, is minimal at only 0.1 percent. If the figure were to be any higher, the Corporation’s decision against divestment could be financially justified. Not only are Brown’s holdings in coal relatively small, but coal itself also appears to be a relatively poor investment. Paxson’s letter to the community explaining the rationale against divestment, which attests to the economic presence of coal in developing countries as a reason for investment, is effectively negated in a guest column written by Brown Divest Coal. The article states that the “global push for increased carbon regulation” has actually encouraged the World Bank Group to “eliminate financial support for coal production in developing countries” (“Yes to divest,” Oct. 1). This drastic measure reveals that major global institutions are indeed taking substantial measures against coal production. While the arguments of Paxson’s letter address the stability and presence of coal, reality shows that the global community also has a conscience through its varied efforts to fight climate change. With constant fears of regulatory interference, the coal industry faces little escape from the watchful eye of the global community.

Given that Brown’s investment is so small, we must then direct our concerns toward the five members of the Corporation known to have financial connections to the coal industry. We urge the Divest Coal campaign to continue pushing this particular argument, as it is such an obvious conflict of interest. If this issue is reconsidered, these five must recuse themselves, and we hope media attention will push them to do so. But with the Corporation’s refusal to remain accountable to such fundamental demands, we cannot reasonably expect to hold its decision as earnest and genuine. Without addressing the five Corporation members who actually command important roles in sustaining coal’s power, the letter’s appeal to coal as a global economic force reads as a defense of these individuals.

The University’s past divestments from tobacco, HEI Hotels and Resorts and businesses in apartheid South Africa have demonstrated its past commitment to valuing the moral and social aspects of financial decisions. These actions had little effect on the University’s endowment at those times, a result we would expect to also see from coal divestment. But the Corporation currently maintains that coal is not the issue and that divestment is not the current answer. Instead, the Corporation suggests the University should focus its efforts toward studying and understanding the matter, ignoring that immediate actions against global climate change are necessary for the continued preservation of our world. This is an excuse that underestimates Brown’s global presence. The national attention and commentary the events of last week have brought should stand to convince the Corporation of the potential for campus decisions to be heard on the national level.

Through the efforts of Divest Coal and others in revealing the complexities and consequences of coal production, combined with the recent surge in student activism, we are hopeful the University will eventually recognize the numerous calls to divest from coal. If this decision is reversed quickly, Brown can still make an exemplary statement and be recognized for its social conscience. The alternative — waiting until forced by pressure from peer institutions to do so — would yield the same ultimate result with no potential for positive press. There is still time for Brown to be a leader on this issue, and we hope Paxson and the Corporation will reconsider as quickly as possible.

 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Daniel Jeon, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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