In February 2018, Lewis & Clark College’s Board of Trustees voted to divest from fossil fuels (The Source). Lewis & Clark students, guided by the environmental club, Students Engaged in Eco Defense (SEED), had been pressuring the college to divest since 2012, but ultimately the success was a result of multiple factors lining up simultaneously. The support of key figures like Interim President David Ellis, Chief Investment Officer Carl Vance and Sustainability Manager Amy Dvorak were crucial, but this article will focus on the student-driven side of the divestment process on campus.
There were two main waves of activism. The first wave began in 2012 and culminated in 2015 with a 432-signature petition that was delivered to the college administration and sustainability council. In response to Lewis & Clark being named the “greenest college in the country,” by the Princeton Review in 2015, students also protested outside the Manor House to call attention to the unwarranted award, given that the college was still invested in fossil fuels (Sustainable Life).
By Spring of 2017, only two members of SEED from the original wave of the divestment campaign, Julie Oatfield and Tarun Bishop, remained. They were the ones that brought the issue to the club’s attention, and we decided to make it our sole focus for the semester.
We began by doing our own research on the financial feasibility of divestment, and on successful divestment processes at other colleges (how they defined divestment, how students pressured their institutions and how the movement was affecting the fossil fuel industry). We also contacted Sandy Polishuk and Taryn Oakley from 350PDX, who provided us with guidance and advice throughout our campaign.
When we felt confident that divestment was not only morally imperative but also fiduciarily advisable, we reached out to Lewis & Clark’s Chief Investment Officer, Carl Vance, to discuss the possibility of the college divesting. We decided from the beginning that we wanted to try a collaborative strategy, to work with the administration — if they were willing. Although Vance was extremely patient with us and helped explain financial jargon and concepts, he did not explicitly express his support of divestment during these first meetings. Over the course of the semester, however, he helped us craft our petition to make sure that our requests were both thorough and reasonable, and became one of our biggest advocates. In addition, he shared critical statistics about the college’s endowment, including the fact that as of February 2017, Lewis & Clark had $14.3 million invested in fossil fuels, representing 6.5% of the total investment portfolio.
Although we knew that the key to Lewis & Clark’s divestment was convincing the Board of Trustees, we had heard from students, faculty and alumni that communicating directly with the Board of Trustees was highly unlikely. Since we didn’t think we could meet with them personally, we decided that our best chance of conveying our message would be to pass both a student senate resolution advocating for divestment and a student petition with as many signatures as possible.
Student Senator Torin Lee drafted a resolution calling for Lewis & Clark to divest from fossil fuels, which passed easily. SEED also reworded the original student petition to outline the expectations in a more measurable way and add citations for sources that illustrated the urgency of divestment. Over the course of the Spring 2017 semester we collected 1,062 signatures from students, faculty and staff in support of divestment (Petition). In order to further student awareness, we hosted an Info Session and brought three speakers to campus: PCC alumnus Alex Bell-Johnson, Zoe Abbott Boyd from Fisher Investments and Jennifer Jones from 350PDX. In addition, we hosted a free dinner, “Divest Fest,” at the campus co-op as an opportunity to start dialogue about the topic between students outside of SEED. The event attracted over 50 people and was a successful way to spread awareness about our campaign.
On March 23rd, about half way through the Spring semester, SEED met with the Interim President, David Ellis. Ellis’s first statement at the meeting was that he fully supported us, and he eventually offered us a 15 minute time slot at the Board of Trustees meeting in May 2017 to present our case for divestment. The rare opportunity to present to the board members in person exceeded our original strategic expectations.
Senator and senior Torin Lee, sophomore Jonas Miller Stockie, first-year Hannah Machiorlette and myself spent hours researching and preparing for the meeting in order to make the most compelling and convincing case during our short presentation. Our main goals were to inform the board of the urgent desire on campus for divestment from fossil fuels, to argue the moral and economic reasons for divestment, and to request an ad hoc planning committee to investigate the specifics of the divestment process. At the end of our presentation we provided the board with our senate resolution and petition to illustrate that we were representing a large proportion of the students on campus, and not just members of SEED.
In response, the board voted to form a divestment subcommittee “to explore the development of a divestment policy” (The Source). The subcommittee was chaired by Investment Committee Chair, Amy Miller. It also included former Investment Committee Chair Beth Miller, Board Chair Scott Dubchansky, Trustees Patrick Nielson and Steven Dover, faculty Environmental Professor of Law Dan Rohlf, Senior Director of Sustainability and Communications Amy Dvorak and Lewis & Clark senior Asher Kalman. Throughout the Fall of 2017 the subcommittee met several times and concluded in their proposal that divestment was “not only possible, but prudent.” One of the biggest factors that convinced the subcommittee was the concept of “stranded assets,” or the overvaluing of fossil fuel stocks due to limitations on the amount that can and should be burned.
During the Board of Trustees meeting in February 2018, the divestment subcommittee presented their proposal, and the board unanimously voted in favor of divestment. In addition to improvements to the already existing environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment policy, the following additions were made to the college’s investment policy:
- Lewis & Clark’s endowment shall not directly own any securities publicly issued by companies in the fossil fuel industry, specifically the largest owners of coal, oil, and natural gas reserves (“fossil fuel companies”).
- Starting immediately, Lewis & Clark will make no investments in any new fund that has exposure to fossil fuel companies.
- Over the next five years (before Dec. 31, 2022) Lewis & Clark will eliminate exposure to fossil fuel companies held indirectly through public commingled strategies. In addition, the college will exit all private limited partnership investments holding fossil fuel companies as they mature, which will take more than five years.
- Consistent with the college’s existing ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] policy, Lewis & Clark will actively engage with existing investment managers to encourage them to adopt fossil fuel free investment options.
- Lewis & Clark will provide an annual update to the broader campus community on holdings of fossil fuel securities in the endowment portfolio.
SEED was ecstatic to hear about the board’s decision. We now feel that Lewis & Clark’s endowment reflects the values of sustainability, justice and leadership, which are core themes of the college’s mission statement (Lewis & Clark Mission Statement). When institutions divest, this adds to the stigma surrounding fossil fuels. Our hope is that Lewis & Clark’s action will inspire other colleges to divest; a significant step on the path to creating a less fossil fuel dependent world.