On Friday, November 9, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to fully divest Whitman College from the fossil fuel industry.
“I think it’s a really powerful statement that we’re at least more committed than we used to be towards ethical investing,” said senior Tyee Williams. “And that we do take into account the ethical considerations surrounding fossil fuels and hopefully other things.”
“I think just in terms of the statement it makes, it’s a really big move in fighting for climate justice in the world.”
Whitman has invested $6.6 million in the fossil fuels industry for as long as they’ve had an endowment, and these investments have ranged between 1 and 2% of Whitman’s total endowment, according to ASWC Sustainability Director, senior Genean Wrisley.
Divest Whitman, a student group dedicated to Whitman’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry, has been urging the Board to divest for the past six years.
Wrisley said students’ commitment to divestment began in 2013 when the incoming first-year class read “Eaarth” by Bill McKibben, who started the divestment movement, followed by a speech by McKibben on campus.
Since then, students have protested yearly at Board of Trustee meetings. They have had different asks each year–originally they had asked for a 1% cap on fossil fuel investments, this year they asked for coal divestment.
In an unexpected turn of events, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted for full divestment.
Wrisley said that as the ASWC Sustainability Director, she had to attend the Board meeting to present to the Board along with the VP of Nominations Christina Dias and VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Adyiam Kimbrough.
“So the three of us walked in and were asked to introduce ourselves and then Nancy [Serrurier], who’s the board chair currently, explained that the Board had voted unanimously to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel companies,” said Wrisley. “And then I asked some clarifying questions because I was like, ‘this can’t be true, this is just so wild, like I don’t understand.’”
“And then I had to sit with that knowledge for like 30 minutes and not be able to tell anyone else while we were presenting to the Board which was really difficult because so many people were waiting for this decision and have worked so hard on this for so long.”
Wrisley left the Board meeting to congratulatory calls and texts, many from alumni.
“I think right now so many people in the Whitman community, both at Whitman and people who have graduated, are like here with us even though they’re not physically here and are just so excited about this,” said Wrisley.
Williams, an active member of Divest Whitman, gives credit to many alumni for influencing the Board’s decision.
“I think there was a ton of work put in, not just us, but people who were attending Whitman before we were who laid a lot of the groundwork for what is happening now,” said Williams.
Wrisley added that many alumni refused to donate to the college until Whitman agreed to divest.
She also said students, even ones who weren’t involved in Divest Whitman as a group, were influential in the decision. Everything from showing up to an event, hanging up a poster, reading a poster and liking an event on Facebook have helped, she said.
“Whitman has a history of not hearing student voices and I think this gives a lot of students a lot of hope, because there are a lot of things that Whitman is still invested in that are not good, but this win is so big in that movement and giving students hope,” said Wrisley. “And hopefully creating a more activist campus once students realize that if they do push for something, there is a potential to win.”
“I don’t think any of the seniors thought we would see divestment at this school within our Whitman lifetime, so that’s wild.”
“It think it’s just a testament to student power,” added Williams. “And the fact that we can enact change with persistent action.”