Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 4, 2019

Thanks to Middlebury College!

Middlebury is a nationally top-10 ranked college, home to about 2,600 students in Middlebury, Vermont. In January 2019, it announced that it would divest its endowment of about one billion dollars from fossil fuels, thereby yielding to years of pressure by students and professors.

In April 2018, the college’s student government sponsored a student-wide referendum in which almost 80 percent of respondents voted in favor of divestment. A faculty resolution on divestment was also passed in November 2018 with over 90 percent voting in favor.

Middlebury’s divestment is especially notable because the environmental activist, Bill McKibben, who helped found the divestment movement, works as a scholar-in-residence at the college. When the matter first came before Middlebury’s Board of Trustees in 2013, the college declined to commit to divesting its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Six years later, the college is now reversing course. “This is great news because it’s one of the first institutions to reject divestment and then change its mind,” McKibben recently tweeted.

In its announcement, Middlebury committed to stopping all new investments in fossil fuels by June 2019, and pledged to phase out all of its current investments within 15 years – a timeline that it believes would protect the value of their endowment. Middlebury now joins over 100 other educational institutions worldwide that have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment (according to the Burlington Free Press).

My own alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, has told me (via its President, David Anderson) that St. Olaf has no intention of divesting its endowment funds from fossil-fuel-related industries. Nevertheless, my hope is that the example set by Middlebury College will help St. Olaf and many other colleges to reverse their courses.

Student and faculty votes on the issue provide a useful starting point. Afterall, who other than students and faculty are in a better position to define the fundamental purpose of their colleges. While the college trustees and upper level administrators generally view their institutions as “businesses” requiring primary attention to their financial bottom lines, the students and faculty of high quality institutions tend to view their institutions as “centers of academic excellence”. The actions being taken by Middlebury College affirm that Middlebury is, first and foremost, a center of academic excellence.

So, as an alumnus of a college that has not made that affirmation, I congratulate Middlebury College for still knowing itself in an era when the “business model” has been applied to far too many institutions of higher education. It has been suggested that by making that choice, Middlebury will lose its “seat at the fossil fuel table” (as St. Olaf President David Anderson has put it). If so, good! As history has repeatedly shown, behaving in a credible, responsible, and forceful manner has great benefits in difficult times. That is how real progress is usually made. Martin Luther, for example, was not asked by the Catholic Church to reform it.  He set an example all by himself that others then followed.

Go Middlebury!


Responses

  1. I really think that we are finally turning the corner in the efforts to deal with climate change. (Yes, it may be too late to avoid some very serious consequences). This is very obvious in the power market where the cost for wind energy is now about $20 per MWh including capital cost while it is about $35 for coal-fired power plants. Many plant are now operating at a loss. It would be cheaper to turn them off and still pay the workers. Several states close them early. But others, like Wyoming and Montana, enact legislation to force the customers to pay for the ongoing losses. This brings me to Eric’s old college. I know nothing about it, and I do not care about it. But, what is clear is that the leaders of that college, like so many other, are stuck in an outdated culture. The

    • … They will be left behind. They are the loosers.
      (I hasten to add that – yes, I know about the problem of transitioning from fossil fuels to solar and wind. Should anyone happen to criticize my optimism on this point, they are unlikely to tell me something I don’t already know).


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