When the Crisis Looms: Student Activism for Divestment at Hamilton College
College campuses have been centers of political activism for decades. Since the anti-war movement of the late 1960s, college students have organized and attended protests, strikes, and sit-ins, both on and off their campuses with pride.
It’s no wonder: college campuses are full of young, vibrant voices who are educated about the injustices of the world and the systems that create these injustices.
Hamilton college is not an “activist” campus. In conversation, Hamilton students tend to care a great deal about social and political issues, especially climate change. But when it comes to actively engaging with issues regarding climate change, climate justice, or a more campus-specific issue, students don’t seem to buy into activism.
When I asked senior Taomi Kenny what kind of activism she thinks is most celebrated on campus, she replied, “slacktivism.” Social media and sharing online posts are the easy way out. For much of the student body, it’s considered annoying to bring issues up in class, or talk about a protest happening, or block Martin’s Way during a strike. And asking the student body to attend a strike where they actually have to skip class—the turnout is close to nothing.
“I think this school feels like such a country club,” Kenny noted. “We feel so disengaged from global issues from being in such a protected, caring environment, that we feel we can opt out of these conversations.”
The culture, then, is one of disengagement, of only taking opportunities as they are handed out. But only a handful of students have put in the effort to create pathways for activism.
One handful of such people is the Sunrise Movement. Sunrise Movement’s mission is to fight “the corrupting power of fossil fuel executives and building a Green New Deal… for good jobs and a livable future for our generation.” Sunrise, a national movement made up of young and energized activists, has heightened conversations about the climate crisis through strikes and protests nationwide across campuses, city halls, and sidewalks.
The Hamilton College chapter of Sunrise was brought to campus by Eric Stenzel ‘23. He, along with his co-coordinators Maddie Lazenby ‘23 and Zoe Sauve ‘23, have led a wave of revolution onto a politically inactive campus. The Sunrise Movement has opened channels for organized climate activism that hadn’t quite existed before. Regarding activism, Stenzel said, “you know there’s an appetite for it, there just needs to be a committed group that is ready to organize.” Sunrise is that committed group, and their primary goal on campus is divestment of fossil fuels.
Above, students and faculty walk down Martin’s way, Carrying a symbolic casket meant to represent a “Funeral for our Futures.” Courtesy of @sunrisehamiltoncollege Instagram. December 6th 2019.
Divestment is a phrase that seems like a catch-all to climate activists seeking to solve the climate crisis, but it’s important to break down as a concept. On November 9th, 2019, Katelyn Kriesel, a Syracuse-area based Socially Responsible Financial Advisor, came to campus to speak on the financial case for divestment of the New York State Pension Fund. While her examples were made to argue specifically for the pension fund, she ceded that the case she was making could and does apply to other institutions, including colleges and universities like Hamilton.
Divestment can cripple fossil fuel companies, according to Kriesel. If everyone sells their shares of a stock and no one buys, the stock price and the share value tank. Divestment raises the cost of capital, which makes it difficult for businesses to proceed with new projects. These metrics are vital for the success of a company.
Divestment is, in fact, perceived as a threat by fossil fuel companies. Shell’s 2018 annual report listed institutional divestment as a material risk: “Additionally, some groups are pressuring certain investors to divest their investments in fossil fuel companies. If this were to continue, it could have a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.” And this shift is even bigger than one company; the European Central Bank has vowed to stop financing fossil fuel projects after 2021.
Kriesel argued in her presentation that fossil fuels are a “stranded asset,” meaning they are no longer able to make a positive economic return before the end of their economic life. Kriesel used data to show that fossil fuels are volatile stocks and have had lower returns each year, as our market gradually shifts to renewable and low-carbon energy. Additionally, future regulations on fossil fuels may hurt a company’s prospects in the long term. She showed that the NYS common retirement fund would have been $22.2 billion richer if they had divested 10 years ago.
Divestment of an endowment is often controversial on college campuses and other institutions due to fiduciary duty. Institutions claim that fiduciary obligation—to maximize the return on its investments in order to provide the best possible outcomes for the endowment’s beneficiaries. In Hamilton College’s case, we, the students, are beneficiaries of the endowment. The endowment allows for need-blind admission and 100% of demonstrated financial need met; it pays faculty’s salaries; it maintains the condition of the college as a beautiful campus and rigorous institution.
On the other hand, Kriesel showed, socially responsible mutual funds, or ESG, have had equal or higher returns on investment than fossil fuels. Put simply: “ESG outperforms.”
This argument concluded that divestment and reinvestment is the most financially sound piece of advice for an institution that seeks to maximize its returns while upholding a semblance of integrity. Kriesel also made the point that if an institution were withholding divestment due to an investment member’s own interests in the fossil fuel industry, that may be a breach of fiduciary duty that could lead to a lawsuit against the school. This has already begun to happen, she said, at Cornell University where she had given a similar presentation to students and faculty.
Does divestment alone stop climate change from happening? Of course not. It is one major step in a series of others that climate activists are seeking to take through many avenues. Divestment of one institution’s endowment alone will also not make a difference, but if national student pressure continues and a few respected colleges start the chain reaction, hundreds of others, with their millions invested, may follow suit.
Divestment from fossil fuels is not a new topic of conversation on the Hill. In 2013-2014, The Spectator published several letters to the editor regarding the Divestment from fossil fuels. At the time, 8% of the college’s endowment was invested in fossil fuel companies.
Over two years, the organization Hamilton Divest, Hamilton Environmental Action Group, Slow Food among other students and faculty, wrote extensively about the pros and cons of divestment.In September 2013, a small group of students met with a committee of trustees and discussed divestment. The end product of that meeting was a proposal to the students by the committee, according to The Spectator: “research and recommend alternative energy investment funds and money managers that perform as well or better than the current money managers that Hamilton employs.”
In December 2013, the Student Assembly voted 26-3 in favor of divestment. In March 2014, a faculty meeting resulted in a unanimous vote for the college to divest. In the same month, Hamilton Divest published a letter to the Board of Trustees via The Spectator that outlined why and how the college should divest its endowment.
The letter wrote that the Investment Office gave the Divestment committee, made up of student groups and faculty, information regarding two coal companies that the College was investing in as of December 13th: Mitsubishi Corporation in a commingled fund; and Consol Energy, of which the college held 32,000 shares. These two companies were less than a quarter of a percent of the College’s endowment.
The letter then asked that the College divest its shares from these two specific companies and not invest in any of the 198 remaining coal, oil, and gas companies which were listed by the Carbon Tracker Initiative as having the greatest potential carbon emissions. The letter had over 200 signatures of students and faculty members.Despite this concerted effort, on March 11th, 2014 the Trustee Committee on Investment published a letter responding to the movements and deciding against divestment. The two-page letter was written by chair of the investment committee at the time, Henry Bedford. While Bedford recognized the community engagement with the issue, he made four arguments against divestment:
1) “That divestment would entail a financial risk to the endowment, short-term and long term,”
2) “it is likely better to have a voice in corporate conversations about responsible behavior than to withdraw from them,”
3) “the difficulty of reconciling an institutional boycott of a segment of an industry with the continued use by individuals and communities of the product and services offered by that segment,”
4) “It would be a violation of trust to shape our investment strategies to achieve ends other than academic,”
5) “we are more concerned than ever about maximizing returns on investments in order to ensure that we can continue fulfilling our educational mission effectively.”
After 2014, this definitive letter shut the conversation regarding divestment down, spanning an entire generation of Hamilton students. Articles appeared here and there regarding divestment, but not as a sustained movement. Instead, organizers such as HEAG and Hamilton Sustainability Coordinators sprung to action for campus-specific initiatives regarding waste reduction and energy consumption, often focusing on individual actions to mitigate climate change. The sense of urgency ceded and the focus shifted away from divestment. The Bedford Letter, it seemed, was the final word.
In the past year, however, momentum has been growing. Conversations regarding both divestment and moving the campus’s carbon neutrality date from 2050 to 2030 have been sustained over the course of a year, manifesting in Spectator articles that referenced climate change in nearly every issue of Fall 2019.
On September 20th, 2019 a Climate Strike was coordinated across the world. On campus, over two hundred people – students, faculty, staff and community members– joined, wearing blue and listening to speakers talk about climate justice and the college’s role in sustainability. The strike was organized the College Democrats, Queer Student Union, Asian Student Association, Vegan Club, and Sunrise. The strike notably took place at 12:00pm, when most students do not have class.
After the September 20th strike, students Jay Carhart ’21, Mian Osumi ’21, and Sarah Stigberg ’20 met with members of the Board of Trustees Investment Committee: Stephen Sadove, David Wippman, and Chair of the Investment Committee Robert Delaney. The three students began the 30-minute meeting with opening statements arguing for divestment. Then, according to Carhart and Osumi, Delaney spoke for the rest of the meeting, citing all of the arguments made in the 2014 Bedford Letter.
The meeting left the students feeling unsatisfied. To Carhart, “it felt more like a lecture than a back-and-forth discussion.” Osumi noted in an email, “The fact that it was a closed door setting with just a few select students just
exacerbates the ongoing issue of transparency and lack of student voices.”
Sunrise Movement Hub Coordinator Eric Stenzel '23 at September 20th Climate Strike.
There seem to be many parallels between the conversations of 2014 and the conversations of today. Generally, the campus administration’s response and arguments against divestments have also been consistent. Student pressure via published articles and meetings between Trustees and students have also brought divestment to the head of many conversations. But one key difference is the gravity of the situation; with each generation of students, their futures are more at stake by the threat of climate change. The divestment campaign of 2013 was less pressure oriented. Now, tensions are beginn
ing to rise.
Today, the Sunrise Movement seeks to escalate the pressure. When I asked Stenzel of the movement’s tactics for progress, he responded readily. Ultimately, he said, “Our goals so far have been to put them in a situation where they say very clearly what side they’re on. And I don’t think they want to have to be in that position.”
By first using more polite avenue of activism, such as meetings and Spectator articles, Sunrise lays the groundwork for expectations and pressure. When demands are not met, however, escalation reaches more critical stages. It warrants a banner dropped out of South Hall, or publicly asking a senator directly about divestment in front of president Wippman. It warrants a visually striking protest, carrying a casket down Martin’s way to Buttrick as a “funeral for our futures.” In the future, perhaps, it will warrant sit-ins, week-long strikes, or blocking roads and risking arrest. Of this approach, Stenzel said, “we are willing to keep going, obviously not violently, until we have reached a critical mass of pressure to do something that is necessary to be done. Nothing’s really off the table.”
Sunrise’s assertive tactics have garnered the support of other activist groups, like Feminists of Color Col
lective. Saphire Ruiz ‘22, co-chair of FCC and co-organizer of the December 6th strike, “accidentally” became a leading voice in the divestment movement because of Sunrise. “This wasn’t my original area of focus,” Ruiz explained. “But my work with FCC has been focused on the impacts that the climate crisis have on black and brown people. That was always our main concern—that black and brown people were the center focus.”
Ruiz affirmed that Sunrise’s focus on environmental justice tackles corporate greed and Hamilton’s deep ties to the fossil fuel industry and Wall Street, while ensuring that voices from FCC and Skenandoah Kirkland Initiative are a part of the conversation. “Sunrise has a definition and understanding of climate justice that matches mine and FCC’s. They’re willing to challenge white supremacy and the corporate standard that Hamilton runs by.”
Hamilton students haven’t experienced this rhetoric of activism since the eighties. Since 1978, a divestment activism campaign had been demanding that Hamilton divest from companies in Apartheid-era South Africa, in which 15% of the endowment was invested. Divesting, the activists argued, would place pressure on the South African government to grant equality to its white and black citizens.
Tensions broke in the spring of 1986, when protesters built “shanties” around campus made up of wooden planks, cardboard, and chicken wire, meant to represent the squalor that black South Africans were living in. On one powerful day, according to faculty member Peter Rabinowitz, over 400 students were protesting at once. The college threatened a lawsuit against the students and supportive members of faculty, including Rabinowitz.
On Class and Charter day of 1986, when each student walked up the Chapel stage to receive their reward, they turned to the audience and declared, “Divest Now.” When Charissima was sung at the end of the ceremony, according to Rabinowitz, it sounded oddly discordant throughout. When the song ended, a different song rose out of the noise: students had been singing, “We Shall Overcome.”The next semester, in the fall, 60 student protesters filled Buttrick Hall in a sit-in, which resulted in 12 student suspensions. The students filed a lawsuit against the college for suspension without due process. These events culminated in the resignation of the President Martin Carovano.
Anti-apartheid protest at Hamilton College with shanties. African Activist Archive, Michigan State University. Photo taken May 1 or 2, 1986.
Some in the administration, like Chief of Staff and Secretary to the Board of Trustees, Gillian King, recognize the importance of student activism as a catalyst for action. When I sat down with King in her office in November, she was quick to mention that divestment is a main topic in conversations in the Investment Committee—and that this has been influenced by ongoing student efforts. Regarding student activism, she said, “it is appropriate—the board is always very interested in what’s on students' minds. That’s the biggest question we always get. And they always want to solve it.”
When I asked her about the possibility of civil disobedience, she first acknowledged a protest protocol the office had. But the College recognizes, she said, “that it comes with the territory, and we want to make sure that people are safe, that discussion progresses, that it isn’t just two heads butting, and the administration wants to work with the students to make sure the dialogue progresses.”
Regarding students’ call for transparency in the investments, King told me that keeping the investment portfolio confidential is like a “trade secret” among colleges and universities. I probed her about the possibility of a conflict of interest with Delaney, the Chair of the Investment Committee, who might influence the college’s investments due to his positions on the Board of Directors of seven fossil fuel companies.
"I think it’s highly unlikely that if Bob Delaney has these positions, he’s telling our professional investment manager which stocks to buy,” she responded earnestly. “At face value, I understand the skepticism, but there’s so many checks and balances. I don’t think I’d be able to get up in the morning if I thought they weren’t there.”
A feeling of mistrust between a student body and an administration is normal at any institution. But it can also create lasting rifts, as was shown clearly in the suspensions and resignation of 1986-87. “In the back of their minds,” Rabinowitz told a group of Sunrise members, “the administration knows that the last time a protest reached a certain level of intensity, it resulted in the resignation of the President of the college.”
What students are asking for today is transparent information. Students want to know what the school is investing in, so that they might be more equipped to carry themselves in conversations with the business executives that comprise our Investment Committee. Students want to know why investments are confidential. Students want to know how to be sure that our investment committee members are not acting on their own interests in the investment decisions of the College. Students want to know why the College hasn’t published an updated response to the divestment movement. Students want to know what it will take to achieve progress.
Today, Sunrise Movement members are looking to the Apartheid protests as a model for their current activism. “If we’re being totally honest,” Ruiz mused, “I see us having to reach the level of the South African divestment movement. When I think about my own personal experiences with the administration, doing meetings, op-eds, or more “diplomatic” processes, nothing has come out of it.”
They paused, then chose their words carefully. “I choose to see a future where we have to take this movement to that level.”
Sources:Rabinowitz, Victor. Unrepentant Leftist, 1996. 322.
Isserman, Maurice. On The Hill: A Bicentennial History of Hamilton College, 2011. 325-328.
Shell Annual Report, 2018: Risk Factors.
Ambrose, Jillian and Henley, Jon. “European Investment Bank to phase out fossil fuel financing” The Guardian, November 15 2019.
Nathan Livington and Mark Parker-Magyar. “Students and Trustees debate fossil fuel divestment” The Spectator archives. October 3rd, 2013.
Hamilton Divests, “Letter to the Editor,” The Spectator archives. March 6th, 2014.
Henry Bedford, “Letter to Hamilton Faculty and Students,” March 11th, 2014.
“Bob Delaney, Partner” Crestview Partners, team member profile. https://www.crestview.com/team/bob-delaney
Sarah Gyurina is a sophomore Environmental Studies major at Hamilton College and a member of the Sunrise Movement. She originally wrote this article for her Climate Change course with Professor Aaron Strong.