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Divestment Update: Brown Considers Kicking Coal, Harvard Reluctantly Accepts Student Petition

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A public rally for divestment at Harvard pressured administrators to publicly accept students' petition.

CREDIT: Camilla Gibson

It’s probably a safe bet to say that Brown University in Rhode Island will be joining colleges like Hampshire, Unity, Sterling and others around the country who have committed to divesting their endowments from fossil fuel companies as part of the national “Fossil Free” movement.

Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies recently recommended the school divest from the country’s 15 largest coal companies. This oversight committee has recommended divestment only three times in the past: from companies operating in Darfur during the genocide, from tobacco corporations, and from HEI Hotels due to mistreatment of workers. In each case, the board of trustees complied with the committee’s recommendations.

The recommendation follows a campaign launched by student organizers in which more than 2,200 undergraduates at Brown signed a petition urging divestment as well as a student body vote in favor of the move last month.

Tom Steyer, a well-known hedge fund manager who announced he was divesting his money from fossil fuel industries, wrote a letter to the university’s president, Christina Paxson, stating that divestment would not threaten the university’s financial status.

“Campuses have all of a sudden become the front lines of climate policy now that Congress is deadlocked, so we have to take action,” says Daniel Sherrell, a grassroots leader with the Brown Divest Coal Campaign. “We might very well see Brown be the first school of its size to divest from any portion of the fossil fuel industry.”

Brown’s administration has said that the university’s investments in the 15 largest coal companies are worth less than $2 million in total. According to data gathered by 350.org of endowments of U.S. and Canadian institutions, in 2011 Brown’s endowment totaled at more than $2,496,926. Brown University ranks 28 on the list of universities and institutions with the largest endowments in Fiscal Year 2011.

Since the oversight committee made the recent recommendation, students are demanding that Brown’s board of trustees divest from coal at their upcoming meeting in May. Brown’s president has confirmed that divestment will be on the agenda at that meeting.

Meanwhile the Divest Harvard campaign won a small victory Thursday when the University conceded to students’ demand and accepted the more than 1,300 student and alumni signatures supporting fossil fuel divestment. University administrators sent Marc Goodheart, vice president and secretary of Harvard, outside to publicly accept the petition signatures before a public rally of more than 150 students, according to an e-mail message from Harvard divestment organizer Alli Welton.

Last November, 72 percent of Harvard undergraduates voted to support fossil fuel divestment in a student-body referendum. The Harvard Corporation responded by stating that the university had a “strong presumption against divestment.”

The national movement for divestment continues to grow across the nation with now more than 315 campaigns taking off on colleges campuses as well as several campaigns taking shape at religious institutions and major cities. Sterling College, the Santa Fe Art Institute, College of the Atlantic and First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee are just some of the institutions that have recently committed to divestment.

Candice Bernd is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.

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