Columbia Has Divested and Hamilton is Falling Behind
Do you remember when more than 150 students stormed the field at the Harvard-Yale football game to protest both schools’ endowment investments in fossil fuels in fall 2019? I certainly do. Just a few days before Thanksgiving, my dad and I were driving home from Hamilton when my mom started frantically texting me about how the game had been stopped by climate change protesters. I think I remember this day best because of how much my parents were engaged with it (I had only been involved in climate justice organizing since September of that same year) but also because it was one of the last really hopeful moments I had for the climate movement before the Coronavirus Pandemic took hold, to see so many students stop business as usual to demand divestment from two of the most elite schools in the world.
I feel a lot of that same hope when I think about the tuition strike happening right now at Columbia University, which secured the divestment of direct holdings in fossil fuels from the university’s endowment on the first day of the strike. This divestment is only one of five demands of the strike—with the #1 being the reduction of tuition and increase in financial aid by 10% each—meaning that the strike is long from over. While the organizing students at Columbia's chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) were quick to point out that the university’s decision only divested “from direct holdings in individual companies, not indirect holdings in funds,” the group already has been successful in pushing the university administration to make one thing clear: Columbia has a role to play in fighting the climate crisis. As part of the university’s statement on the decision, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger said in part, “There is an undeniable obligation binding upon Columbia and other universities to confront the climate crisis across every dimension of our institutions… employing all the tools available to us and engaging all who are at Columbia today and those who will follow us in the years ahead.”
To President Bollinger it is clear that Columbia and all other universities have an obligation to make decisions that will benefit present and future students by being part of the effort to stop the climate crisis. My question, now, is when will Hamilton College follow suit?
As Hamilton continues to surge in liberal arts college rankings—particularly the US News & World Report rankings, which recently named Hamilton at #9 for its top liberal arts college list, marking the first time that Hamilton has entered the top 10—the college is certainly garnering more attention and prestige, being able to more easily include themselves in the same group as many other well-known “name schools.” However, many of these peer institutions—from the Ivy League and the NESCAC to elite colleges near and far too large state school systems, medium well-known schools, and small lesser-known schools—have all already made the decision to divest from fossil fuels. With many more colleges in the midst of student campaigns to divest as well, Hamilton is well on its way to being the odd one out.
There are many more schools that have committed to divestment and many that have already achieved it, including Hampshire College. In a Huffington Post article about the divestment decision, President Jonathan Lash self-described Hampshire College as an “under-resourced college,” but reported that only five years after divesting, the college’s endowment was doing better on average than more than 800 other colleges. According to President Lash, divestment from fossil fuels is the financially wise choice. He also echoes Columbia’s President Bollinger by writing, “Too often the first response of administrators and trustees in rejecting divestment is, investment decisions must be made solely on financial considerations and never subject to moral and political questions. That argument—making money is too important to allow talk of morality, social well-being, or the future of the students for whom the institution exists—is discordant for a mission-driven institution.”
My question, yet again, is when will Hamilton College follow suit?
President Lash’s words go directly against the public statement that set a precedent on Hamilton’s campus on the Board of Trustees’ stance on divestment: the Bedford Letter. After students and faculty demanded divestment from fossil fuels back in 2014, the Board of Trustees released this letter to explain their reasons for not divesting. The statement, written by the then-chair of the investment committee, Henry Bedford, said in part, “But the fundamental question has to do with our responsibility to steward funds entrusted to us in support of the College’s mission, which is education… We believe it would be a violation of trust to shape our investment strategies to achieve ends other than academic.”
Knowing that many other colleges have divested from fossil fuels for reasons that directly acknowledge their respective schools’ role in fighting the climate crisis and even found the decision to be financially lucrative, I do not and cannot take Bedford’s statement seriously. Moreover, it makes the many things that make Hamilton stand out as an institution crumble. For Hamilton to hold so many classes touching on the climate crisis or the environment in several different departments and not do what may be the most major action step to preventing said climate crisis is performative and hypocritical. For Hamilton to provide its students with a well-rounded liberal arts education preparing us for long lives and careers and yet still hold any stocks in the industry that will soon make living on this planet impossible is performative and hypocritical. For Hamilton’s very mission statement to read in part, “Hamilton enables its students to effect positive change in the world,” and not make any commitment to effect positive change as an institution is performative and hypocritical.
Columbia’s tuition strike has ultimately given me more hope than I could have predicted when I first read the news. This hope comes from knowing what is possible when students organize themselves around creating the kind of change they want to see, knowing that a university such as Columbia is capable of divesting, and seeing the excitement and rejuvenation in my fellow organizers when I told them the news. Columbia needs to serve as an example of what is possible for an elite college such as Hamilton to do to actually make a difference. And it needs to happen soon, because as of now, Hamilton is falling behind its peer institutions in actual commitment to its students’ lives.