Pitzer College to Take Fossil-Fuel Divestment a Few Steps Further

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Jess Grady-Benson, a senior at Pitzer College, and Donald P. Gould, a trustee, were members of a working group the Board of Trustees created to discuss divesting. Mr. Gould said eliminating fossil-fuel investments "was not going to make a big difference in our long-term return."
April 14, 2014

Pitzer College concluded a long debate over whether to jettison investments in fossil-fuel producers by announcing Saturday that it will not only divest this year but also commit to trimming 25 percent from the college’s carbon footprint by the end of 2016. The liberal-arts college, located in Claremont, Calif., also plans to create a sustainable-investment fund within its endowment, among other steps.

The debate was sparked by a student group, Claremont Colleges Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, which last year failed to persuade neighboring Pomona College to sell its fossil-fuel investments.

Pomona’s president, David Oxtoby, said at the time that the college’s $1.9-billion endowment was "a sacred trust" and that the college’s consultants had projected that eliminating fossil-fuel investments would "result in a total decrease in the endowment’s performance over a 10-year period of about $485-million." Bowdoin and Middlebury Colleges and Brown and Harvard Universities, among other institutions, have also turned away divestment proposals.

But Donald P. Gould, a member of Pitzer’s Board of Trustees who is chair of the board’s investment committee and chair of a working group the trustees created to discuss divesting, said Thursday that after careful analysis, he had concluded that "divesting was not going to make a big difference in our long-term return" on Pitzer’s endowment, or on the college’s ability to assure that its investments are sufficiently diverse.

Mr. Gould, who is president of an asset-management company, said he and others on the board had "wrestled with the issue that it was not internally consistent to single out fossil-fuel companies" while continuing to drive automobiles and buy plane tickets.

But board members were mindful that the 50-year-old college had offered courses about the environment almost from its founding and includes environmental sustainability and social responsibility among five core values. "In order to align our actions with our values, it made sense not to be seeking to profit from fossil-fuel exploration, extraction, and sale," he said.

He added that Pitzer’s commitment was to divesting "substantially," rather than to ferreting out every fossil-fuel stock in every indexed fund in which the college has an investment—which he said would be "an unreasonably literal approach." The Pitzer working group defined substantial divestment as getting rid of 99 percent of fossil-fuel investments, he said. "We’re going to do everything we reasonably can not to be in a position of profiting from these products."

Laura S. Trombley, Pitzer’s president, said the college’s investments in fossil-fuel providers amount to $5.4-million of its $124-million endowment. The college plans to sell $4.4-million of that amount by the end of this year.

A ‘Collaborative Process’

Jess Grady-Benson, a Pitzer senior who is one of the leaders of the divestment campaign and a member of the working group, said in an interview Friday that the trustees were at first "quite resistant" to divestment, although they looked more favorably on the possibility of adopting other aspects of a climate-action plan. "But throughout the negotiation process, we kept divestment on the table. It ended up being a very interesting collaborative process," she said. "We’ve really developed a relationship of mutual respect."

Brinda Sarathy, an assistant professor of environmental analysis, was also a member of the working group. She said the proposal the trustees adopted unanimously on April 5 "in the end was more comprehensive and better than anyone could have imagined." The commitment to cut 25 percent from Pitzer’s current carbon footprint, Ms. Sarathy said, grew out of a general sense "that everyone needs to feel this, that everyone needs to have skin on the table."

Possibilities for shrinking the carbon footprint include further limiting the number of students who can bring cars to the campus, as well as combining fall break and Thanksgiving vacation so students use less fuel traveling home and back, said Jesse Meisler-Abramson, a 2011 Pitzer graduate who is now the college’s sustainability coordinator. Reaching the 25-percent mark will involve "working on on-the-ground, daily-life behavioral-change issues" for students.

Innovative efforts to reduce the fuel used by faculty and staff commuting could also play a role, he said. "We need to look at what are we using, why are we using it, and do we need this much?"

Mr. Gould said that Pitzer is "defining our carbon footprint in the largest sense—including student travel to and from campus, travel abroad, and commuting." He added that, in some respects, trimming the carbon footprint was going to be "really hard."

But he added: "My feeling is that the divestment movement is real and gaining ground. And it makes a difference whether you’re the 11th college or the 111th." Ten other colleges and college foundations have committed to divestment, the best known of which are the College of the Atlantic and Hampshire College.

"We’re digging in. We’re rolling up our sleeves," Ms. Trombley said at a Los Angeles news conference Saturday at which the plan was announced. She said she was also "issuing an invitation to our sister institutions in higher education—come join the party."

Correction (4/14/2014, 1:20 p.m.): In an earlier version of this article, Mr. Gould was erroneously quoted as saying, "it made sense not to be seeking to profit from fossil-fuel exploration, exploitation, and sale." He actually said it makes sense not to seek profit from "fossil-fuel exploration, extraction, and sale."