WATERVILLE — The Colby College board of trustees has decided not to divest from the fossil fuel industry, but students say they won’t stop trying to build support for the move, which they say would help combat global warming.
Right now, just five schools in the entire country, including Unity College, have decided to transfer all of their investments away from companies connected to the fossil fuel industry; but the discussion is happening at hundreds of institutions, spurred on by a growing network of student groups dedicated to the cause.
Colby President William D. Adams said the link between divestment and global warming has yet to be fully made.
“I understand the strong feelings the students have about the risks of global warming,” Adams said. “I have them too. What’s not clear is how this divestment movement will affect the issue of global warming.”
A group of students brought the issue to the investment committee of the board of trustees in April.
“After an open and honest discussion, the committee acknowledged student concerns but ultimately concluded that their case did not meet the College’s standard for divestment,” Colby Communications Director Ruth Jacobs said in a statement. “College policy is that divestment with regard to political or social movements should take place only under the most exceptional circumstances.”
Students who led the cause praised the college for its overall level of environmental responsibility and the manner in which it addressed their concerns.
Maravilla Clemens, 18, of Oxnard, Calif., just completed her freshman year at Colby, during which she became founder and co-president of Colby Alliance for Renewable Energy, a student group on the campus with about 50 members.
“We hope to show that climate change is one of the largest issues, if not the largest issue, facing our generation,” Clemens said.
She said she was proud to bring the issue to the attention of administrators, and that they were sensitive to her concerns.
“I think it got a phenomenal amount of consideration, actually,” she said. “The board of trustees only meets for about six hours a year, and they spent 90 minutes discussing divestment. We’re looking at that as a good sign.”
Clemens said student groups devoted to divestment are an emerging trend at college campuses across the country, where the discussion has moved past convincing colleges to be energy-efficient.
Next year, as a sophomore studying environmental policy, she plans to continue her work on the issue, which includes a petition campaign, hosting awareness events and giving presentations in classes.
“We’ll have a whole new wave of freshmen,” she said. “We’ll make sure they know exactly where we are and where we stand, and just showing that we as a student body, who the board represents, believe that it does rise to this level.”
She said that administrators on the campus were supportive of the group and helped to guide it through the process that culminated in the meeting with board members.
Clemens said she understands the arguments against Colby divesting, which include concerns that it could increase the volatility of its endowment and that it could lead to further requests to divest from other economic interests with political connotations.
However, she said supporting oil and coal companies is not a viable alternative.
“What is happening right now is unacceptable,” she said. “We need to look at other forms of energy. It’s not ecologically just and it’s not environmentally just and, in many cases, it’s not socially just.”
Clemens said it is important for colleges to divest as a symbolic gesture because of the role they play in shaping the future of the country.
“Colleges are where all the leaders of the future generation are,” she said.
Colby has been an environmental leader in other ways. In April, it announced that it became the fourth college in the nation to achieve carbon neutrality, meaning that its net impact on greenhouse gas emissions is zero. For years, the college has been building new campus buildings to strict environmental standards and renovating its existing energy systems, including the use of geothermal wells to heat and cool two buildings. A biomass plant came online in 2012 to provide heating to many campus buildings, which is expected to decrease Colby’s consumption of oil by 1 million gallons each year, according to Jacobs.
Five colleges, all small institutions in the Northeast, have committed to divestiture, although their endowments are significantly smaller than Colby’s, which was listed at about $500 million in 2010.
In Maine, Unity College announced in November that it was the first school in the nation to fully divest its endowment of about $13.5 million. In March, the board of trustees at the College of the Atlantic voted to divest its endowment of about $30 million. In Vermont, Green Mountain College committed to divest its endowment of about $3 million, as did Sterling College, with an endowment of less than $1 million. In Massachusetts, Hampshire College, with an endowment of about $31 million, also has commited to divest.
According to the website 350.org, which provides support for the movement, there are more than 300 active divestiture campaigns in the country, and 12 in Maine, including at the University of Maine System, the College of the Atlantic, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine.
Noncollege campaigns have been begun for the town of Hope and the Maine Public Employees Retirement System.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287