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The Carletonian

Divest Carleton meets Board members for the first time

<rleton, the student group advocating for Carleton’s divestment from fossil fuel companies, met with President Steve Poskanzer and three Carleton Trustees on Friday, May 12. This was the first formal meeting of Divest Carleton students with members of the Board of Trustees in the group’s four-year existence. As a result of the meeting, Divest Carleton feels that dialogue with the administration has been reopened.

“It’s been really frustrating because they never met with us as an organization,” said Divest Carleton member Naomi Price-Lazarus ’18. “We’ve been pushing for them to meet with us to really understand what our argument is, and this is the first time where we’ve really been acknowledged.”

Each term, student members of Divest Carleton email the Board of Trustees to ask for a meeting. In fall 2015, the Board did not formally meet with students in Divest Carleton before it voted against divesting from fossil fuel companies. For this reason, Divest Carleton members were surprised when Board Chair Wallace Weitz ’70 agreed to meet earlier this month. Two members of Carleton’s Investment Committee, President Steven Poskanzer and Vice President Fred Rogers agreed to meet as well.

“We’ve met with the President multiple times, and we’ve talked to Vice President Fred Rogers, but we’d never met any of these members of the Investment Committee,” said Price-Lazarus. “So, we were surprised. This is something we’ve been trying to get to happen for a while.”
In an email to Divest Carleton, however, Weitz said that members of the Board have met with alumni leaders of Divest Carleton. The Board has also heard arguments for divestment from the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC), which formally recommended that the college divest in 2016.

“The Trustees have been following the issue of fossil fuel divestment for many years.  While the Board has reached different conclusions and therefore taken a different position than Divest Carleton, the Trustees have never shut off all dialogue with students and alumni over this issue,” Weitz said in the email.

In the meeting with the Investment Committee, Divest Carleton argued that divesting from fossil fuels was especially important in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. Divest Carleton believes that Trump will threaten renewable energy efforts.

“I’d say that our main argument this time was that urgency has shifted since Trump, and that now it’s more urgent than ever, and they need to be political,” said Ally Tucker ’18, a Divest Carleton member.

The Board, however, argued that there are at least four reasons that it opposes divestment as a tactic to fight climate change. Speaking on behalf of the Board and President Poskanzer, Weitz told The Carletonian, “I believe that all of us agree on the causes and dangers of climate change, on the fact that extracting and consuming fossil fuels have negative environmental impacts. The board’s objection to divesting as a tactic (as we explained in a letter after our fall 2015 vote) are based on several considerations, including (1) the fiduciary responsibility of the board in managing the endowment; (2) the appropriateness of the College taking institutional positions on non-academic matters; (3) doubts about the effectiveness of divestment as a tactic; and (4) the availability of corporate governance resolutions and other strategies to achieve change.”

Before the meeting, Divest Carleton members researched talking points to counter Poskanzer’s previous arguments against divestment. “We were prepared for what we heard before because we’ve met with the President multiple times,” said Price-Lazarus.

Divest Carleton specifically prepared arguments related to the fiduciary responsibility of Board members. The fiduciary responsibility of the college was discussed in the letter explaining the Board’s decision against divestment in 2015.

“We talked about it from a marketing standpoint. Is it more appealing to donors to donate to Carleton if they divested, or is it scary and unappealing because then Carleton’s investments could be more at risk?” said Tucker.

Tucker cited the recent decrease in senior gift giving as support for the former. Each year, Divest Carleton emails members of the senior class to ask them to withhold their senior gift to the endowment. Traditionally, the senior gift is the first time alumni donate to the college. In 2014, 61 percent of students contributed a senior gift, but in 2016, only 29 percent of seniors donated.

In an email to The Carletonian, Weitz said, “I personally feel very good about giving to Carleton and I feel a little sad that some alums have felt the need to reduce or even stop giving to the College simply because it has not divested.  But the Trustees and the College understand that giving is a personal choice for each of us, and I don’t feel as if I should argue with any potential donor about her or his giving decisions.”

Yet, members of Divest Carleton defend their request that students withhold their senior gift to the endowment as a moral issue. Price-Lazarus believes that Board members and Divest Carleton members have fundamentally different morals.

“I wouldn’t say that we were always arguing on the same plane,” said Price-Lazarus. “I think we have some different morals or social values that aren’t being reciprocated or understood fully by members of the Board of Trustees, who are really focused on that fiduciary responsibility or on making sure the college gets donors or whatever that interest might be.”

Both Poskanzer and Weitz followed up on the meeting with an email to thank members of Divest Carleton for their arguments. Weitz told Divest Carleton members that he agrees with their concern over global warming.

“Thanks to all seven of you [Divest Carleton members] for your passion for a cause (protecting the planet) that I (and the rest of the board) agree with completely. I know it is really frustrating to continue to hear ‘Yes, but…’ from us. I have no suggestions for how to get us completely onto the same page, but for what it’s worth, talking with you reinforces my faith in Carleton students and my enthusiasm for helping support the college,” said Weitz in the email.

Weitz shared a similar sentiment with The Carletonian. “I doubt that either side was persuaded to change positions, but hopefully the students felt heard and have a better understanding that our disagreement is over the wisdom and consequences of divestment as a strategy rather than the ultimate goal of protecting the planet.”

As a result of the meeting with Board members, Price-Lazarus feels that dialogue has been reopened.

“I have a reinvested interest in being a part of this movement because I know that it’s not dead. It’s confirmation that discussions will continue, and whether we will divest is another question,” said Price-Lazarus.

Carleton’s direct holdings in fossil fuels have shrunk in the past three years, according to Price-Lazarus. On Dec. 31, 2016, Carleton had just over $1 million invested in fossil fuel companies. It is unclear what has spurred the recent decrease in fossil fuel investments.

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