The college will not make any new investments in fossil fuel investment funds moving forward, Board of Trustees Chair Andrew J. Nussbaum ’85 announced in a letter to the community on March 31. The college will also phase out its remaining investments in fossil fuel funds by 2030 and take a more proactive approach to relationships with investment managers. While recognizing that the announcement is a step in the right direction, students and faculty demanded more immediate action to address the urgent problem of climate change.
The college’s divestment announcement represents a formalization of the college’s decreased investment in fossil fuels in recent years. The proportion of the endowment tied to direct and indirect investment in fossil fuels has rapidly declined — from six to three percent — since the Board released the Sustainability and Investment Policy in February 2015. However, the Board’s Sustainability and Investment Policy did not make mention of nor commit to divesting from gas and oil and did not address ongoing student requests to divest from the prison-industrial complex.
Amherst is not the only institution to take action. Rather, it follows in the footsteps of many colleges and universities across the globe. Beginning in early March, schools such as Columbia University, Cornell, Brown and Oxford have committed to divesting in fossil fuels.
The decision also aligns with the college’s ongoing commitment to sustainability and coincides with the release of the Climate Action Plan of 2019. This plan accelerated the timeline to achieving carbon neutrality by five years and pledged $80 million to a complete conversion to geothermal energy.
Following the announcement, Amherst College Sunrise, a student organization that operates as part of a national movement to stop climate change, issued a response to the announcement. Though the student organization applauded the decision of the college to divest in fossil fuel funds, it made immediate and long-term demands to President Biddy Martin and the Board of Trustees in its response. The recent letter continues the ongoing requests made by Sunrise Amherst last November. Specifically, it called on leaders of the college to address and divest in the prison-industrial complex.
The organization also established definitions of the fossil fuel industry — energy companies whose primary business relates to the extraction or transport of fossil fuels — and participants in the prison-industrial complex, which it explained consists of entities that provide financial support to private prison companies, rely on unpaid or low-paid prison labor in its supply chains, have a monopoly on the provision of prison necessities or hold contracts with prisons to supply weaponry or surveillance technology.
Amongst the immediate demands was a commitment to end all new investments in prisons or companies that depend on prisons for profit, as well as divestment from the college’s holdings in a prison telecom company that Martin admitted in her November letter derives profit from the prison-industrial complex. Sunrise Amherst also requested quarterly meetings with the president and the Board of Trustees, quarterly reports on the college’s progress and information about the members of the “secretive” Investment Committee.
As for longer-term demands, Sunrise Amherst called the college to make a public commitment to divestment in the prison industrial complex by 2021, a divestment from fossil fuels by 2025, an ongoing awareness of future student concerns and the creation of six student positions on the Board of Trustees.
In an interview with The Student, Margot Lurie ’21, a leader of Sunrise Amherst, said, “It’s a really big deal that we got this commitment from the Board of Trustees — they’ve never come out publicly [saying], ‘we’re actually serious about phasing out our investments.’ But on the other hand, this doesn’t actually commit the school to anything that they hadn’t already decided to do. And even those decisions were made behind closed doors.”
“So students and community members didn’t know about these decisions,” Lurie continued. “These were effectively policy choices that were made many years ago. It’s great to have [the] public commitment of the college, because now we can hold them accountable. But it also doesn’t really feel like the school has moved forward.”
Prior to the official update’s release, Sunrise Amherst was notified that the college was planning to make an announcement. Claire Taylor ’23, also a leader of Sunrise Amherst, mentioned, “We were given a little bit of a heads up that they were going to make an announcement, but not what the announcement was going to be [about]. We were fairly cynical and thought [it would be] an announcement that the [college] would not invest in fossil fuels in the future, and not a public commitment to phasing out the current investments. So that was surprisingly good, but at the same time, it definitely fell short of what we had asked for, and some things, some conversations we even had with the board members.”
The roadblock to divesting in the prison-industrial complex, Nussbaum said, is related to the activity of investment managers. He explained, “We allocate money to managers, who in turn make decisions about where it’s sensible for the college to be invested as part of a larger investment pool of funds from many other institutions — not just academic ones, but others like retirement plans, for instance.”
He went on to express that “it’s very difficult, if not impossible, in most cases, to say to managers, ‘we would like to give you money, but you now need to make sure that you don’t do the following 10 things.’”
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Ashwin Ravikumar, whose research focuses on the management of natural resources, recognized the importance of the decision but believed the process is being unnecessarily drawn out. “This announcement doesn’t amount to any big changes or bold steps that demonstrate any newfound commitment to divesting from fossil fuels,” he said. “And the timeline of 2030, to me, seems really, really long, given the urgency of the problem and given Amherst College’s institutional clout and the size of its endowment.”
He added that the Sunrise Movement’s demand to divest from the prison-industrial complex goes hand-in-hand with this decision. “The other thing that jumps out to me from this statement is that it’s silent on the prison-industrial complex and the campaign, Sunrise Amherst, that students have been pushing for has made a really strong point of showing how these issues are connected, of emphasizing that climate justice is fundamentally about racial justice, and that divesting from the prison-industrial complex is incumbent on Amherst College, to the extent that it views itself as an anti-racist institution,” he said.
With more work to be done, leaders of Sunrise Amherst encouraged students to keep working together to push the college to align its actions with its stated values. “If you see injustice in our campus, don’t be afraid to speak up,” said Jeanyna Garcia ’23, a leader of Sunrise Amherst. “That’s something that I’ve been learning throughout [the] years — that I can actually speak up, and chances are that I’m going to find other people who also [see] those same issues that I do.”
Correction, April 8, 2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Amherst College Sunrise is composed of Amherst College and Amherst Regional High School students. The group consists only of Amherst College students.
Correction, April 8, 2021: A previous version of this story misstated one of the immediate demands Sunrise Amherst made in response to the divestment announcement. The group did not call for divestment from all prison telecom companies, only for divestment from the college’s holdings in one prison telecom company that President Martin had previously conceded depends on the prison-industrial complex for profit.
Correction, April 8, 2021: A previous version of this story referred to Claire Taylor ’23 and Jeanyna Garcia ’23 as “member” and “co-founder” of Sunrise Amherst, respectively. Their preferred designation within the organization is “leader.”