Commentary

Colleges Should Put Their Money Where Their Ideals Are

May 15, 2017

Climate change is fundamentally tied to our basic economic, social, and political systems. Colleges and universities should be confronting this immense challenge from every angle, and recognizing that targeted divestment and campus sustainability go hand in hand.

Yet there is a perceived tension between divestment and sustainability. As one student ruefully remarked at a campus-sustainability meeting last fall, divestment activists believe that "if you want a better recycling program, start a divestment campaign." The implication is that colleges use sustainability efforts to pacify students and faculty members who demand divestment.

This distinction between public, outward-facing actions like divestment and local, community-based efforts like recycling was echoed by a Barnard College faculty member who said recently at a campus town-hall meeting that we need to think big and ensure that our sustainability efforts "don’t just involve recycling paper clips."

That’s right. We in academe need to push for policy changes, divest from companies that are not working toward a carbon-free future, educate students on the scientific and social realities of climate change, and train activists. But we also must learn, as citizens, how to live in the world on a daily basis in a way that is consistent with our values and our mission. Collective actions, after all, are made up of thousands of smaller individual actions. Even recycling paper clips can be an important part of building and accelerating a larger, systemic shift.

Barnard is tackling both divestment and sustainability to help spur just such a shift. In March the Board of Trustees approved divestment from any investments in "fossil fuel companies that deny climate science or otherwise seek to thwart efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change." The board also resolved to greatly increase climate and sustainability efforts at the community, operational, and curricular levels.

The strength of Barnard’s approach is that it does not make divestment and sustainability an either/or decision; both are parts of one unified effort.

Today we need to engage in broader efforts aimed at systems change like public policy, market incentives, and divestment. But local efforts — the paper clips and the recycling programs — should not be dismissed. A 2015 study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology demonstrated that 60 to 80 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions can be traced to household consumption. This figure is borne out by the campus carbon-footprint study that Barnard’s divestment task force commissioned in 2016. According to the report, everything we do after we turn on the lights and plug in our computer — the food we eat, the items we buy, the trash we discard, the trips we take — represents as much as 70 percent of our collective carbon footprint.

This comprehensive approach is at the heart of Barnard’s efforts toward sustainability and divestment. Many other institutions have drawn a line between operational or curricular initiatives and financial decisions. For example, in 2013, Harvard University’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, explained its decision not to divest from fossil-fuel companies, arguing that the main purpose of the endowment was to further the academic university’s goals, and not to make political statements.

But the logic of isolating the financial and investment arms of an institution from its operational and curricular activities is difficult to sustain. Harvard, for example, is rightfully proud of its "campus as laboratory" approach, creating active links among coursework, scholarship, and operational decisions.

So why not follow the logic through? Why is it appropriate to use the dining halls as a laboratory for change, but not the endowment? After all, the dining hall is there to nourish the students, just as the endowment is there to nourish the academic mission. Both can protect their primary functions while also responding to ethical, social, and environmental considerations.

Why is it appropriate to use the dining halls as a laboratory for change, but not the endowment?
Barnard’s approach underlines the connections among the college’s financial, operational, and curricular decisions. By differentiating among fossil-fuel companies in its investment policies, Barnard acknowledges the need to offer incentives to those in the industry to step up as the nation faces the challenge of a transition to a low-carbon future. And by considering honestly and in great detail the impact of its own individual and community actions, Barnard acknowledges that its own community is complicit and needs to act.

The college’s divestment report argues that, in the face of climate change, "no one office or person can be responsible, and no person or office can be exempt — from students to curriculum, facilities, dining services, and the financial and investment arms of the college," we all share the responsibility to take action. Only with such an all-encompassing commitment can we hope to tackle the daunting challenge of climate change.

Sandra Goldmark is an associate professor of professional practice in theater at Barnard College and director of sustainability and environment there. She also serves on the college’s Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment.