November 26, 2013

Bates divestment campaign takes a step forward

I, along with four other students from BEAM (Bates Energy Action Movement), met with President Clayton Spencer last Monday to present our case for divestment from the fossil fuel industry over a 5 year period. While President Spencer could not take a definitive stance on her support for divestment, she seriously considered our arguments and recognized the moral imperative to act around climate change.  President Spencer agreed to look at any divestment reports and/or news we send her way and is in the midst of developing a timeline to release a public memo regarding Bates' stance on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. Lastly, as a first step, she is open to engaging our investment managers with concern over the long term risk that investment in the fossil fuel industry presents.


We had not met with President Spencer directly since last winter; however we have been in frequent, direct contact with members of the Board of Trustees. Last May, the Board of Trustees decided that Bates ‘would never be a leader in this movement,’ though they recognized the moral imperative to divest. Looking into our history, Bates has frequently been a leader in significant justice movements, such as women in higher education and abolitionism. The Trustees conceding that we could never be leaders in the fight to end climate change was an unacceptable response for us.

In Monday’s meeting with President Spencer, we presented the financial argument for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. We pointed to numerous reports which highlighted the minimal impact that excluding the fossil fuel industry would have on portfolio performance and risk. We also made the argument that divestment would be very positive for Bates’ reputation and name recognition because of the media coverage and scale of the national movement – a fact which schools who have divested can back up. We presented how the goal of divestment is the social and political stigmatization of the fossil fuel industry which would make a more suitable environment for climate legislation to be enacted.

Surprisingly, President Spencer agreed with a lot of what we had to say. We did not need to explain the science behind climate change nor the catastrophic impacts it is predicted to bring about - she was already aware. President Spencer did not oppose the assertion that fossil fuel investments may be risky over time and she has agreed to look at any and all reports which we send her way. Lastly, President Spencer understands the magnitude of the movement and how this could help Bates reputation.

However, she still could not support or commit to divestment because of the short term risks and losses she believes it could present. To divest the 3% of the Bates endowment that is invested in fossil fuels, it would involve working with over 20 of our managers to phase-out fossil fuels companies from the portfolio of co-mingled funds in which Bates invests. President Spencer is concerned about the transaction costs associated with switching managers as well as short term losses divestment could cause by excluding the fossil fuel industry as it is now.

We agree that divestment may be a difficult process and that the Bates endowment really cannot afford to lose money, however, we remain committed to finding a responsible way for this to happen at Bates. Institutions with just as complex portfolios as Bates have successfull divested such as some of the larger cities, like Seattle an San Francisco. If Bates wants to be a leader in this movement, we can. As the national movement grows divestment will become an increasingly easier process because more fossil fuel free options will become available. I sincerely hope President Spencer and the Bates Board of Trustees decide to engage with our investment managers because we believe the endowment is exposed to risk from fossil fuel investments and because it is a very important step which must precede a commitment to divest. 


I would encourage other schools to take this step as well. If you are looking for an intermediate action  for your administration to take that will not impact the endowmennt but will still make progress for your campaign, engagement with your managers is a great goal to work towards. We will keep the divestment world updated as we learn more information but for now we are thankful for the progress we have made. 

Thank you all for your hard work- together we will hold our schools accountable.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Bates Energy Action Movement