Divest Kalamazoo College to Create Dialogue : College’s Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Questioned

By Allison Tinsey, Editor-in-Chief

For more information on Divest Kalamazoo College visit their Facebook page. The group is holding an informational meeting on Thursday, No. 7 at 4:30 p.m. in Harmon Lounge.

             The newest buzzword floating around Kalamazoo College’s campus is “divestment”. The recent launch of a campus-wide campaign to divest from fossil fuel companies has brought this word to the forefront of the Kalamazoo College vocabulary.

Disinvestment or divestment is the process of removing institutional investments from a certain company or organization. The movement to divest from extraction industries is a growing trend across the U.S. and the world. These efforts often begin with campaigns at colleges and universities.

The process is often compared to the non-violent refusal to invest in Apartheid industries back in the 1980s.

“We honestly believe that the oppression of fossil fuels mirrors the apartheid movement,” said Colin Lauderdale, ’14, speaking for Divest Kalamazoo College at their launch event. Lauderdale is a biology major and Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership Scholar.

Members of the group explained how the fossil fuel industry contributes to a variety of adverse effects on the environment, economy, and community well being. Detriments to the environment include drastic climate changes caused by combustion, which is produced in every step of the fossil fuel supply chain. Extraction, transportation, and use of these fuels contribute to “rapid and irreversible changes” to the climate and the environments they affect.

But Lauderdale states, “Calling this an environmental issue doesn’’t do justice to the scale of the problem.”

For communities whose economies and industries rely on the production or consumption of fossil fuels, the job sector is unreliable as these companies continue to minimize labor costs. If work is available, laborers are often exploited and their health and safety are at risk.

“The ultimate issue is environmental, of course, it’’s our climate, but it’’s inextricably connected to the economy and to social well-being and health as well.  I refuse to stand on one side of some simplified dichotomy,” said Binney Girdler, Associate Professor of Biology, who has been informally advising students about sustainability and divestment over the past few months.

The question is then, why should Kalamazoo College consider divesting?

For biology senior Katie Ray, the answer is simple: “I feel as a sustainability intern, part of my duty is to remind the College of their sustainability commitments. I think it’s essential to remind them that their ‘values’ must line up with their actions.”

At the kick-off event, Ray explained that divestment is the opportunity to reinvest in sustainable and just companies. “The aspect of divestment that most excites me is not the idea of starving fossil fuel companies of funds, but of the opportunity implicit in reinvestment,” echoed Lauderdale.

“I see divestment as a way to promote both good business practices and social and environmental responsibility,” said Emma Dolce, ’14 and another sustainability intern.

“I believe that the dialogue around this topic is important. K is an institution that has always valued the environment, and over the years our students have shown leadership in pursuing efforts of sustainability,” said Jim Prince, Vice President of Business and Finance at the College.

While the core of this campaign is focused on the environment and social justice efforts, the process of divestment is largely business oriented. The group that presented at the kick-off event admitted that information on the College’s actual investments are hard to come by.

“I don’’t think the College’’s lack of transparency regarding the endowment is out of line,” said Lauderdale.

“We are very aware of the potential financial risks involved in divesting and have no intention of asking the college to hurt the endowment. On the contrary we are looking for solutions that will be financially, environmentally, and socially responsible,” said Stesha Marcon ’14, student activist.

“There has never been a deliberate attempt to hide investment information from students, the College recognizes that there is always room for improvement in how information is made available,” said Prince.

Prince explained that much of the vast amounts of detailed information available to the College about its investments are in a paper format. The College is currently considering better ways of making information accessible to the public.

Cambridge, Kalamazoo College’s investment consultant, is currently working on a “Brief on Fossil Fuel Divestment” that will be made available to the College in the coming months.

“Were the College to move away from fossil fuel investments, careful analysis would need to be done to determine the potential impact on the budget. The College would not want to be put in a position of having to increase tuition at a higher rate due to diminishing level of income from the endowment,” said Prince.

The kick-off event was the first step in beginning the dialogue on divestment, which is one that the College is willing to have. But Prince says that more research and careful consideration of the issue and alternatives is necessary before making any decisions.

“I can’t promise you how the Board will respond to this issue, but I can promise that they will listen and carefully consider the important issues around fossil fuel divestment,” concluded Prince.

Jim Prince welcomes students to ask questions and has an open door policy for all who wish to speak to him.

“I think that as long as the college is open to the idea, this movement could see some serious progress in the coming years…I feel that institutions such as K can only put off the inevitable for so long,” said Ray.

“Even if the College isn’’t able to divest entirely from fossil fuels at this time, talking about these issues and what it would take to create an economic culture in which the College could divest could help us envision a culture in which sustainable and life-enriching activities are profitable investments,” said Amy Newday, Professor of English and someone who has personally divested from fossil fuel companies.

For more information on Divest Kalamazoo College visit their Facebook page. The group is holding an informational meeting on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 4:30 p.m. in Harmon Lounge.