Backed by faculty, Bowdoin College students push trustees to strip fossil-fuel investments from endowment

Posted Oct. 23, 2014, at 2:40 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — A group of Bowdoin College students met with members of the college’s board of trustees on Oct. 17 to renew their plea for the college to remove from its endowment investments in firms that profit from fossil fuels.

The meeting between Bowdoin Climate Action and the Student Affairs Subcommittee of the board of trustees was buoyed by a letter signed by 70 faculty members in support of an immediate divestment, but one that “should be carried out gradually and responsibly.”

“Bowdoin College has taken admirable steps in reducing its carbon footprint on campus, but the magnitude of the problem calls for bolder action,” reads the letter, in part, as it appeared in the Bowdoin Orient.

The letter also calls on Bowdoin College “to build a nationwide coalition of higher education institutions to demand that Congress enact a comprehensive energy bill, end public subsidies for oil and gas companies and put a price on fuels that reflects their true environmental and social costs.”

Bowdoin College President Barry Mills has repeatedly stated that the college will not divest.

“He still believes divestment is the wrong approach,” Bowdoin College spokesman Doug Cook said Tuesday.

In September, Bowdoin College announced that its endowment, of which approximately 45 percent is restricted to the support of student financial aid, generated an investment return of a little more than 19 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30.

At that time, the endowment was valued at more than $1.2 billion.

“A strong and growing endowment is the single most important factor in our ability to provide access and opportunity through financial aid, and to fund the outstanding academic and residential life programs that set Bowdoin apart,” Mills said in a statement at the time.

In February 2013, Mills and Paula Volent, Bowdoin’s senior vice president for investments, told The Orient that the investment in fossil fuel companies are made through commingling funds containing hundreds of other stocks. Divesting from fossil fuels would cost the college more than $100 million over 10 years, according to Volent.

In May, Bowdoin Climate Action stated that the college had invested less than 2 percent in fossil fuels.

“We acknowledge that it may impose costs in terms of the institution’s financial returns; thus, it should be done with a careful eye to safeguarding the college’s core programs and commitments,” the faculty letter reads. “Initially it should target the most egregious companies and the dirtiest fossil fuel sources, such as coal and oil from tar sands.”

The student group has campaigned and gathered signatures in support of divestment for the past two years.

“We’re really pleased and encouraged that so many faculty have signed on in support of divestment,” Bowdoin junior Allyson Gross said in a statement following the meeting. “It shows that we have momentum and that this issue is not going to go away.”

Bowdoin College has taken steps to reduce its own carbon footprint, and has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020.

On Oct. 16, it announced the completion of a ground-mounted solar panel array on land it owns that was once part of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. Combined with solar installations already installed on rooftops of several large on-campus buildings, the solar project is six times larger than any other in Maine, and provides 8 percent of the college’s electricity.

The array was built in collaboration with California company SolarCity, which also will install an additional 12-kilowatt system on a new residence hall later this year.

“Our college is proud to be moving forward with this significant investment in clean and renewable solar energy,” said Mills in a statement announcing the completion of the project. “Our partnership with SolarCity reduces Bowdoin’s dependence on fossil fuels and makes sense for the college economically. It also provides meaningful educational opportunities for students and faculty focused on alternative energy and sustainability, and underscores Bowdoin’s continuing commitment to the responsible stewardship of our environment.”

Following the Oct.17 meeting, the trustees are scheduled to meet with Mills to consider the student proposal, according to a release from Bowdoin Climate Action.

 

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