Divestment Discussions Continue in New Forms

Lane Barton

Whitman community members are continuing a dialogue about divestment, both by providing feedback on the recent work of the Divestment Policy Work Group (DPWG) and with a resolution passed by Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC).

Students, faculty and staff have utilized an open comment period to offer various critiques of the DPWG’s findings regarding a possible framework for evaluating divestment proposals, while ASWC unanimously approved a resolution asking the Board of Trustees for a response on a 2015 resolution that proposed a one percent cap on investments related to the fossil fuel industry.

The first form of discussion came via responses to the work of the Divestment Policy Working Group, a group which analyzed socially responsible investment policies at other peer institutions and drafted a possible endowment divestment policy which the Board of Trustees can evaluate. During the open comment period, nine students, four alumni and six faculty and staff took the time to respond to the draft policy.

One critique of the findings was that they seemed to require community members to petition to change an existing investment, without including an option for evaluating investments prior to making them for the first time.

“Instead of doing a pre-fact investment policy they did a post-fact investment policy. So now the Investment Committee can continue with the status quo, not recognizing social responsibility in their investments at all, and the onus is on the students, the faculty and the staff to retroactively correct the Investment Committee and we feel that’s an extremely problematic way of framing things,” said junior Dani Hupper, a member of student organization Divest Whitman.

Another concern noted by multiple respondents was the lack of clear definitions of what would constitute a violation of basic values of the Whitman community, which is the proposed baseline criterion for evaluating whether divestment can be considered by the Board.

I wondered whether via such guidelines, the Board really wants to be put into the position of regularly determining whether all kinds of ‘investment’ activities around the world do not ‘threaten our basic human values.’ What are the criteria for determining whether such activities do or do not threaten our basic human values?” said Professor of Politics Bruce Magnusson in an email to The Pioneer regarding his response to the working group.

Regardless of what the basic values of the community are defined to be, multiple respondents noted that the requirement of near unanimous campus consensus on these values was an unreasonable bar for considering divestment proposals. Some argued that this would be a barrier to having conversations about divestment, as any somewhat contention issue may find it difficult to pass this standard for consideration by the Board.

“Open, respectful, and sometimes difficult contestation of ideas is what makes the liberal arts so dynamic and important.  Because of the impossibly high threshold and clear unease with contestation, the draft policy read to me like it was trying to shield the Trustees from difficult debates, rather than trying to create a framework to facilitate good quality debates in our community,” said Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain in an email to The Pioneer.

The Divestment Policy Working Group itself cannot publicly comment on specific feedback as the process is not complete; however, they have met to discuss feedback and will be presenting their findings to the Board of Trustees during their meetings from April 27-29.

“The next step is to discuss the draft policy with the Trustees at their meeting later this week and to share with them the common themes in the feedback we received and the options we are considering to address that feedback.  After receiving the trustee input we will then circle back to some of the people who made comments on the policy and share the specific changes we are considering.  Hopefully, a consensus will emerge from that process,” said Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey, a member of the DPWG, in an email to The Pioneer.

One last comment expressed by a number of respondents was an acknowledgement of the importance of the DPWG creating an ability for community members to provide feedback.

“We are very appreciative that they had the open comment period…it’s a great mark for transparency,” said senior Lorah Steichen, a member of Divest Whitman.

The second way in which students specifically are trying to continue the conversation is through a new ASWC resolution. In February 2014, the Board of Trustees issued a statement rejecting an ASWC resolution advocating for limits on new investments in fossil fuel companies and the creation of a committee to study divestment of fossil fuel investments. As a result, ASWC produced an updated resolution in spring 2015 that advocated for a one percent cap on fossil fuel investments in the college endowment. However, no formal response to this resolution from the Board was provided to ASWC; so during an emergency Senate this past Sunday, ASWC passed a new resolution written in conjunction with members of Divest Whitman that requests a reply.

“The purpose of the resolution, it seemed to me, was to advocate for a formal response from the Board of Trustees to ASWC Resolution SRS 15.4, which passed last spring. [Resolution SRS 15.4] was essentially an updated proposal for divestment from fossil fuels, but it was a little more nuanced and it relied on a little more of a sophisticated financial analysis of Whitman’s endowment, and ultimately that resolution advocated for capping the exposure of Whitman’s endowment  to fossil fuels at about one percent,” said ASWC President Jack Percival.

The new resolution, which will be presented to the Board during their meetings this week, aims to show that circumstances have changed since the 2014 rejection, and that a new response is warranted. From this, the hope is that a better dialogue about divestment can continue.

“The format of this resolution is a series of rebuttals or refutations on [the Board’s] 2014 statement on divestment, either with pieces of Resolution [SRS] 15.4, new information on Whitman’s endowment,…[or] just different pieces of evidence that show that [the 2014] statement is now wrong, mostly,” said junior Mitch Cutter, ASWC Senator and a member of Divest Whitman. “This needs to be a conversation that happens between the Trustees, Divest Whitman, and ASWC as well.”