Divestment at Wellesley College?
Since 2021, when Wellesley College agreed to divest from fossil fuels, there has been only silence. When the Board of Trustees agreed to divest, most people thought of the issue as completed. Yet, because of the increase in oil prices around the globe, Wellesley’s exposure to fossil fuel investments has actually increased from $95 million to $115 million in Fiscal Year 2022. Although it says on the Wellesley website that exposure to fossil fuel investments is expected to decline over the next several years as existing investments fully liquidate, data has been hard to find, and clear communication has been lacking. And, when the data has been requested or found by students, it is clear that though Wellesley College’s Board of Trustees agreed to divest, that does not mean it is actually happening. Let’s start at the beginning.
The Wellesley College student government initiated a vote that said that Wellesley students would take on more responsibilities, such as paying a fee for having a mini-fridge, or less buses scheduled into Boston, in order for the college to divest. This ballot then passed in Spring 2021. Renew Wellesley, Econ/ES 199: Fossil Fuel Divestment, and the Sustainability Committee were the entities responsible for the ballot in the first place. Though students in these groups advocated for student voices on campus, the ballot was controversial. Students, especially those from marginalized or low-income communities felt like the requests were too much. With pressure from the Board of Trustees saying that if the ballot did not pass, they would likely choose to not divest, all three entities began tirelessly campaigning to make the necessary change and to encourage students to vote yes for the ballot.
The ballot said:
The Board of Trustees is planning to vote in late April on whether to join Smith, Middlebury and others in divesting from fossil fuels, in part contingent on the simultaneous step of pairing divestment with a suite of concrete, carbon-reducing actions developed and recommended by members of our community. Do you support this Board of Trustees vote in favor of divestment and the carbon-reducing actions identified by ECON/ES 199?
The carbon-reducing actions developed and recommended by members of the Wellesley community included:
- Busing: Reduce the number of College-owned buses from 4 to 3, and thereby run 2 rather than 3 buses at a time. Concurrently implement an online seat reservation system to ensure efficient distribution of ridership and alleviate the peak demand issues that drive a sizable fraction of busing costs. At the same time, we also recommend that the College implement a system for ensuring that students who have time-sensitive travel needs (e.g., for an MIT class or a job/internship) have access to and from Boston and Cambridge even when buses are full. Cost savings: at least $116,838/year. Carbon savings: 69.73 metric tons CO2/year.
- Mini-Fridges: Enact a formal limitation on the use of individual fridges in dorm rooms by requiring students to pay a $25 “conservation fee” if they choose to have a fridge in their room, while also being conscious of issues of medical need and financial equity. Cost savings: $30,171/year. Carbon savings: 21 metric tons CO2/year.
- Parking: Implement a tiered parking system that will modestly raise student parking charges for students with gasoline-powered vehicles while exempting electric and hybrid electric vehicles from the price increase and providing them with preferential parking spaces, thereby incentivizing students to invest in greener automobiles. We also encourage the installation of swipe access to parking lots to limit the number of unregistered vehicles on campus, and implore that the College work with the Office of Sustainability on enforcement of these policies. Cost savings: $2,430/year. Carbon savings: negligible (but up to 5 metric tons CO2/year if it leads more students with cars to drive electric vehicles).
- Red Meat: Reduce red meat consumption in the dining halls by 50%. Consider doing so in phases—e.g., starting with a 1/7 reduction in red meat consumption (such as a “Meatless Monday” across all dining halls) with a plan to adopt a 50% reduction of red meat within 5 years. Cost savings: $74,115/year. Carbon savings: 191.92 metric tons CO2/year.
As expected, there was substantial controversy around these agreements. Common complaints included: Students are already not making their MIT classes, so reducing the buses would make that even more difficult; mini fridges already cost money, so an additional $25 fee is ridiculous; electric cars are expensive and are not accessible to all students; red meat is valued by many cultures and eaten regularly. Still, despite the controversy, the endless hours of work put into passing the ballot were successful. The ballot passed, and that’s where the story gets even more interesting.
For one, none of the measures regarding buses, mini-fridges, red meat, or parking have been followed through on. Students can have mini fridges and do not have to pay additional fees. That is great considering the controversy associated with the ballot. However, why did the Board of Trustees put this responsibility on students in the first place?
Additionally, the way that the endowment works at Wellesley is that the college employs outside endowment managers. These managers have investments in the stocks and bonds of energy companies. On June 30, 2013, 0.5 of the endowment ($8 million) was in the largest 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies in separately held accounts. The three firms with these investments manage 6% of the total endowment, and the managers from these firms are unwilling to accept a fossil-free mandate. They would decline Wellesley College’s business if asked to do so. Further, the Investment Office estimates that the cost of reinvesting these assets in fossil-free investments would reduce endowment earnings by $1.6 million a year. Historically, the Wellesley College investment managers have generated above market returns. The Investment Office estimates that full divestment would reduce endowment spending by $15 million a year since Wellesley would only earn market returns instead.
Bottom line. Wellesley College has “divested” on paper. In reality, Wellesley would never fully divest because of the loss in endowment returns. Ultimately, colleges are businesses, and they act as such, continuing an economic system that puts the people attending their schools at greater risk from the effects of climate change.
Calling on the Board of Trustees
In Spring 2023, EnAct partnered with Wellesley College’s Young Democratic Socialists of America to send a letter to the Board of Trustees, and to hold a community demonstration that the Board of Trustees were invited to attend.
The letter called for three actions:
- We recommend that the College integrate environmental action and sustainability into our mission and values. As an institution dedicated to the empowerment of its students towards social change and innovation, Wellesley believes firmly in the transformative power of teaching and learning: both sides benefit. We must work to demonstrate the value of environmental advocacy on this campus and beyond, and the College has the power to institutionalize that drive for worldwide environmental protection and hopefully, betterment.
- In 2015, Wellesley College scored a 53.2, or a Silver ranking, for the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education STARS rating. This translates to a VERY LOW rating among peer SLAC (small liberal arts college) institutions. By 2018, Wellesley College had achieved a 66.4 score, or a Gold rating, moving to a solid middle position among peer institutions. The college has stated its aim for a new rating analysis goal for 2024. We ask that Wellesley College aims to achieve a low performance goal of 75, and a high performance goal of 85 by 2024. A score of 75 is still a Gold rank and will acceptably demonstrate the college’s commitment towards improving sustainability, and moving up amongst its peers. A score of 85, or a Platinum rank, will showcase excellence in sustainability and make Wellesley one of the top leaders in sustainability among peers.
- In Winter 2021, Wellesley decided that “Investments with managers whose primary investment focus is on companies in the fossil fuels industry are prohibited; no new investments will be made in private equity funds that focus on fossil fuel investment; and the college will phase out existing partnership interests in private equity oil and gas funds in a manner consistent with fiduciary responsibility.” We request transparency on the current progress in the divestment scheme through updates on Wellesley’s ‘socially responsible’ investment. This may be semesterly in order to maintain student awareness of the college’s efforts and to keep accountability.
We obtained many signatures on the letter and had good turnout at the community demonstration. But the Board of Trustees did not attend. Further, their response to the letter was poor. They did not respond to any of the actions laid out in the letter.
This is to say that, unfortunately, colleges continue to be businesses. Although they say they stand for their students or their issues, that does not mean they actually do. Ultimately, when the needs of students are not met, it is up to them to advocate for one another, and to make the changes we need. It is not acceptable that Wellesley’s portfolio’s exposure increased by $20 million; it is not acceptable that the college seems to value profit over life. The students at Wellesley College will not cease from spreading the divestment message. We will persist in struggling to make Wellesley College the place we know it can be. We will be heard.
RCC Fellow – Suzanna Schofield – Wellesley College
Suzanna Schofield is a senior at Wellesley College, double majoring in Environmental Studies and Peace and Justice Studies with concentrations in water conservation, sustainable community development, and public health. The health of the world will continue to be affected more and more by climate change. This fuels her activism and advocacy, on and off campus. In addition to the RCC, her efforts include involvement and leadership in EnAct, the environmental student organization at Wellesley, Fridays For Future Wellesley, the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, World H2O Hub, Inland Ocean Coalition, Amboseli Wildlife and Communities, and more.