Alumni, parents and students from 13 universities across the country took a bold step in the national divestment movement on Tuesday, December 23 by launching the Multi-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund, a fund that allows for tax-deductible donations to be made to universities by patrons who do not agree with their investments in the fossil fuel industry.
Among the participating schools are Boston-area colleges Brandeis, Northeastern, MIT, Tufts and Boston College, whose student organization Climate Justice at Boston College (CJ@BC) has been one of the strongest supporters in getting the Fund going, according to Bobby Wengronowitz, GA&S '16 and co-founder of CJ@BC.
The Fund acts as a sort of moral middleman between donors and universities. Parents, alumni and students can donate through the Fund’s website, and donations will then be held until a school’s endowment “immediately freezes any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divests within five years from current holdings of fossil fuel companies,” according to the Fund’s press release. For schools that do not divest by the end of 2017, held donations will go to participating schools that have divested by that time.
“Back in 2011, the [International Energy Agency] found that 2017 was the cutoff for building any new fossil fuel infrastructure if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change,” says Morgan Curtis, a Dartmouth student, in explaining the reasoning behind the 2017 cutoff.
While the phenomenon known as global warming is still up for debate amongst scholars and the general populace, NASA states that atmospheric carbon dioxide is at an all-time high, almost 100 parts per million higher than the maximum in the past 650,000 years. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases act like “a blanket” around Earth, and are responsible for the 1.4°F rise in the earth’s temperature over the past century, as well as the 2 to 11.5°F projected increase in the next 100 years.
It is for these reasons that divestment campaigns have sprung up across the country, urging universities to freeze all new investments and divest from current holdings in fossil fuel companies. 2014 has been a banner year for the movement according to Erin Sutton, A&S '16 and a member of Climate Justice at Boston College. "As urgency to address the climate crisis rises, more people are joining (or at least agreeing with) the climate movement, and activists are becoming less and less 'fringe' groups," she said.
The student work across the country has gained the most traction, made possible in part by the Divestment Student Network, a national network of students collaborating on ideas to improve and be more successful in their individual campus campaigns.
Through facilitating university donations, the Fund enables alumni, parents and students to join the divestment movement on a new front, in addition to the rallies and protests that have dominated the fight up to this point.
Wengronowitz sees it as a great organizing tool, one that will force BC's administration to recognize climate justice efforts on campus and across the country.
"The Fund works wonderfully in that it allows alumni and friends of BC to make contributions in ways that are morally acceptable to them. [It] really allows for folks to do more than sign a petition, and it speaks in (what seems to be) the preferred language of the institution—donations," he said.
Since its founding, it seems that CJ@BC has struggled to find a language that Boston College will listen to. Having been denied recognition as a Registered Student Organization, the climate justice group has had trouble gaining ground among administrators, often being met with silence and on rare occasions "outright hostility," according to Wengronowitz. BC administrators have been notified of the Fund's existence but have yet to respond.
It is not only schools’ endowments that will be affected by the withheld donations, however—schools’ national rankings are also at stake. According to U.S. News, which annually releases its Best Colleges rankings, financial resources for students and alumni giving have a combined weight of 15 percent in determining a college’s overall ranking.
These rankings have been observed to have a significant effect on a university’s applications, admissions and enrollment decisions. According to a paper written by James Monks and Ronald G. Ehrenberg of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a lower rank “leads an institution to accept a greater percentage of its applicants, a smaller percentage of its admitted applicants matriculate, and the resulting entering class is of lower quality.” This could in turn lead to unfavorable future rankings and even fewer alumni donations.
The magazine states that the percentage of alumni giving serves as an indicator of overall student satisfaction with the school. The Fund allows alumni that had a great experience with their particular college to still communicate that satisfaction to the university, while at the same time expressing their disapproval with the school’s financial investments.
“I want to give to Brandeis because I had an amazing experience there,” says Naveh Halperin, Brandeis alumnus, “but I can’t donate knowing they’re investing in morally unjust industries that undercut their mission to strive for social justice.”
Because this ranking is derived from the total number of donors rather than the amount donated, even small donations matter, and students are encouraged to get involved. David Corbie, A&S ’15, says he is “working on getting others to use their ‘senior gift’ as a way to encourage [Boston College] to stand up for climate justice.”
Wengronowitz says that a school like Boston College works hard to get seniors to donate because it will boost the university's ranking, but by steering those donations toward the Fund, "it will only help increase BC's ranking when they do the right thing and divest from fossil fuel companies."