At the heart of the Bates culture is our commitment to sustainability. We are one of seven schools nationally for becoming carbon neutral, we are ranked #1 fifth greenest college by the Princeton Review and our vision of sustainability ambitiously stated that “environmentally friendly behavior must now be an imperative rather than an option”. But despite all of this, our college administration still chooses to invest 3% of our endowment in fossil fuel stocks.
In 2013, the Bates Environmental Action Movement, or BEAM (now our Environmental Coalition), launched a campaign to stop these investments. At the heart of their call was this blatant hypocrisy: how can we invest in millions of dollars of fossil fuel companies when we call ourselves a leader in sustainability? Although Bates students have been strong supporters of this campaign—they have held protests, trustees’ meetings, and even candlelight vigils—the college administration has decided to hold on to its fossil fuel investments.
In a letter responding to BEAM’s campaign, Bates Chairman Clayton Spencer wrote that the college would not divest primarily because the “social and environmental priorities of the wider Bates community” did not outweigh the “financial goals of the endowment“.
But lately, it’s become increasingly clear that fossil fuel companies aren’t exactly good investments. In 2021, BlackRock, the investment house that holds $9.5 trillion in assets, found that in “divestment actions by hundreds of funds globally,” portfolios “have not experienced any negative financial impact from fossil fuel divestment. In fact, they found evidence of a modest improvement in fund performance. So the main reason the college wanted to keep our investments is no longer true.
Drawing on the reasoning of former Harvard President Drew Faust, whose university has since begun to divest, President Spencer also wrote in her letter that “the instrumentalization of an endowment for political purposes distorts its function as an essential resource for our university mission”. But our investments are by nature a political choice. Our endowment is invested in companies that make money for their shareholders by harming others. In the case of fossil fuel companies, the bad — climate change — affects everyone.
While divestment may seem like the sudden politicization of our endowment, it is actually the recognition that investing purely for profit is, in fact, measurably unethical. If we want to fully practice this “responsible management”, starting to make ethical investments would be
be a good step forward for college.
Much of the value of fossil fuel companies rests on the global collective response to climate change. If we continue business as usual, the value of fossil fuel companies will continue to grow. If we tackle climate change enough, however, their value should fall. So if we continue to invest in fossil fuels, we should ask ourselves a question: do we want to profit from the destruction of the world, or do we want to lose money?
Although a growing number of colleges have stopped investing in fossil fuels, others, including ours, should have already done so. When you consider the vast scale of action needed to tackle the climate crisis, it’s alarming that colleges like ours – institutions with massive endowments – have not divested. If our privileged corner of the world is not doing what it very easily can do to solve the problem, what can we expect from the rest of the world?
Among all these colleges, we claim to be a place which, as described in our mission statement, is to “prepare leaders supported by a love of learning and a commitment to responsible stewardship around the world”. If we want to live up to that, divestment is a necessary step.