Pitzer College Divests from Fossil Fuels -- Who's Next?

From Left, Trustee Donald Gould, Professor Brinda Sarathy, student activist Jess Grady-Benson, President Laura Skandera Trombley, and Robert Redford at the LA Press Club | Photo: Courtesy Pitzer College
From Left, Trustee Donald Gould, Professor Brinda Sarathy, student activist Jess Grady-Benson, President Laura Skandera Trombley, and Robert Redford at the LA Press Club | Photo: Courtesy Pitzer College

Pitzer College celebrated Earth Day a little early this year -- as in ten days premature.

But it can be excused: On Saturday, April 12, with college trustee Robert Redford lending his considerable eco-cred to the ceremony at the LA Press Club, President Laura Skandera Trombley announced that Pitzer would be divesting its endowment of fossil-fuel stocks by December 2014. With that decision, the planet can breathe a tad easier.

Its respiration, and ours, will be helped as well by the college's critical and linked decisions to establish an Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance investment policy that will frame future financial decisions; reduce its carbon footprint by 25% over the next two years; establish a segregated environment fund within its endowment to promote campus sustainability, some of the income of which will be directed toward incentivizing changes in community behavior and sustainability projects (And it is discussing investing in the Billion-Dollar Green Challenge that will underwrite energy-efficiency initiatives). Achieving these ambitions goals will not be easy -- actually they will be quite hard -- but the college's trustees, aided by an energized student body and faculty, have rightly decided that this year, as it marks its 50th birthday, Pitzer should go bold. (Full Disclosure: I serve on the college's alumni board, as well as work for Pomona College. Both Pitzer and Pomona are part of the Claremont University Consortium)

It always has. Founded in 1963, with a small faculty and a handful of female students supported by a minuscule endowment on a tiny campus scraped out of Claremont's boulder-studded alluvial soil, it has become one of the best liberal-arts colleges in the country, and not incidentally with one of the most diverse faculty and student bodies. Pitzer's ongoing transformation has occurred in good part by keeping a steady eye on its motto: Provida Futuri. Mindful of the Future.

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The college's decision to divest is a direct consequence of that focus on the far horizon. It is why its trustees were willing to do what few of their peers at other institutions of higher education have had the courage to do, which is to break the fossil-fuel habit as quickly as possible. They know that their decision will come at a cost, yet they have forged ahead. Costly, too, is their decision to launch the larger Climate Action Plan, yet they pushed on believing that it has the chance to have even greater impact, in Claremont and far beyond.

"I continue to marvel at Pitzer College's ability to take risks that pay off and go where many other educational institutions dare not go," Robert Redford asserted. "Today's announcement makes Pitzer the first college or university in Southern California to divest, and the first to come up with an innovative solution that other organizations can model."

The college's leadership, however, would not have announced these fiscal, technological, and sustainable goals had not the students demanded action -- powerfully, persistently, persuasively. They launched the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign in November 2012, a five-college-wide movement that called the question on the consortium's complicity in the oil-and-gas economy. That demanded divestment as one step in achieving social and climate justice. The students knew full well that they too were implicated in the very energy dependency from which they hoped to liberate their schools, adding fuel to their fire.

They made little headway to date at three of the colleges -- Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps. At Pomona College, which has had a robust sustainability initiative since 2008, and where the student body voted overwhelmingly for divestment, the activists were able to present their case to committees of the board of trustees. Ultimately they were rebuffed. Like Harvard, Brown, and other well-endowed universities and colleges, Pomona's leadership conceived of its nearly two billion-dollar endowment as a "sacred trust" with which it could not, would not tamper. In this case, it let principal trump principle.

How rich, then, that Donald Gould, a Pitzer trustee who played a major role in negotiating the college's final divestment initiative, is a Pomona alumnus. He chaired a working group comprising key students, faculty, and staff that the Pitzer Board charged with coming up with a robust Climate Action Plan. After months of discussions and analysis, it concluded, in Gould's words, that pulling the plug on fossil-fuel stocks "would not make a big difference in our long-term return."

There was as well an ethical element embedded in the trustees' ultimate decision to confirm the working group's recommendations. "In order to align our actions with our values," Gould affirmed, "it made sense not to be seeking to profit from fossil-fuel exploration, extraction, and sale."

The students had made the same calculation eighteen months earlier, which is why they should have the last word since they had the first. "Pitzer's commitment is something to be celebrated," the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign declared in a release, "but we are deeply aware that a crisis of this magnitude will continue to demand bold action from all of us, especially those with disproportionate influence in society."

With such power comes an inescapable, enduring responsibility: "Climate change affects all of us, but we recognize that it is other communities who are being hit the hardest and bearing the brunt of the impacts," yet as "we stand on the brink of an uncertain future, we commit ourselves to this fight, and to working towards a common vision of sustainability, justice, and collective liberation."

On Earth Day (or any other), their passionate pledge to build a more just, virtuous, and habitable world rings loud.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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