A Growing Movement: A Look Back at Divestment in 2015-2016

This spring, the Divest Whitman campaign worked behind the scenes to finish a formal ASWC (Associated Students of Whitman College) Resolution, create a response to the Divestment Policy Working Group’s Divestment Policy, and to plan our annual spring action during the final Board of Trustee meeting of the year. The spring action is always a well-attended event that gains the interest of students, professors, staff, and passersby, and creates escalation essential to moving forward in this campaign.

Branching outwards, we applied for funding and sent two groups of students off-campus to regional environmental convergences in March. First-years Alya, Genean, Thomas, Tyee, Julio, Amanda, Ridley and Chapin went to the first Divestment Student Network Convergence in the Pacific Northwest, held at the University of Washington in Seattle. Once there, they were able to collaborate with other college students in the region about divestment tactics helpful to each respective campaign and were added to the growing network. Lorah, Taylor, Dani, and Mitch spent the same weekend at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Held annually, PIELC is a free, well-attended conference that offers insightful lectures and workshops for lawyers, environmentalists, economists, and concerned citizens.

The admin team for divestment recently finished and helped pass a new ASWC resolution calling for an updated response from the Board of Trustees. The Board issued a statement in 2014 explaining why they would not divest. In 2015, an ASWC resolution (SRS 15.4) went to the Board of Trustees which asked for divestment with a 1% cap (allowing less than 1% of our endowment to be invested in fossil fuels). At this time, students and faculty voted nearly unanimously in support of divestment. After this new information was presented to the Board no feedback was given, and because of this the new ASWC resolution (SRS 16.2) calls for an updated response to the information presented in 2015.

The new resolution, SRS 16.2, sites specific quotes from the Board’s letter in 2014 and addresses why they are not valid reasons to keep our endowment invested in fossil fuels. The resolution was concluded with:

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Associated Students of Whitman College calls on the Whitman College Board of Trustees to reconsider SRS15.4 and release a thorough, updated response to that resolution that addresses this new information; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this response be made public and distributed to the entire Whitman College community before the end of the November 2016 meeting of the Board of Trustees.”

The hope is that this new resolution will force the Board of Trustees to discuss divestment and issue a new response that the divestment club can work with in the future.

We worked with the Whitman administration and Board of Trustees throughout the semester to adopt institutional policies related to investment practices. The Divestment Policy Working Group formed at the start of the spring semester and is composed of board members, investment committee members, administrators, and student and faculty representatives. The group released a draft policy document mid-semester for an open comment period. The policy contained incredibly weak language and proposed an incredibly complicated and inaccessible process for Whitman community members to make divestment requests to the Board. We found this policy particularly problematic for a few reasons:

  • The burden lies on students who must carry the responsibility of taking action in retroactively addressing concerns regarding Whitman’s investments.
  • There is a significant emphasis on shareholder activism, which seems unlikely to be the most effective route for change.
  • The policy neglects to describe the fundamental moral and ethical values that it posits as criteria for evaluating investments.
  • Dissension is discouraged in favor of “community consensus,” without mention of the quantitative methods used in determining consensus or weighing dissent.

As a result of overwhelmingly negative feedback from students, faculty, and alumni, the working group proposed a second divestment policy proposal. After eliciting input from students and faculty who provided feedback on the initial policy, the board passed the policy. The new policy will go into effect this fall. It provides a procedure upon which members of the Whitman community must follow to make a divestment request and specific guidelines upon which these requests will be evaluated.

All and all, we had a busy and productive semester! With the new divestment policy formally in place, we’ll spend the summer beginning to draft our proposal to the board. The continued support of our alumni base will be crucial as we embark on this process!

– Lorah, Dani, Taylor, and the Divestment Campaign

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