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December 04, 2012

Middlebury College Takes First Step Toward Possible Divestment From Big Oil

DivestmentConsider it a good sign for the growing movement for divestment from fossil fuels: Middlebury College president Ronald Liebowitz announced today that the college is initiating a "formal process" to investigate divestment.

In an email to students, faculty and staff, Liebowitz also revealed that approximately 3.6 percent of the college's $900 million endowment — that is, roughly $32 million dollars — is invested in fossil fuel companies. That marks the first time the college has disclosed how much of is endowment is tied up in the industry.

While the announcement isn't, by any means, a firm commitment to divest, the email sparked encouragement among students on campus campaigning for divestment. The divestment movement is spreading to college campuses across the country as climate activist and Vermont resident Bill McKibben headlines a bus tour to encourage schools, churches and foundations to strip their endowment funds of investments in the 200 top fossil fuel companies. McKibben told Seven Days last month that while divestment won't financially cripple the powerful industry, it could represent an "inherently moral call, saying if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage."

McKibben, who also serves as a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, responded to Liebowitz's email on Tuesday with a statement through his environmental group 350.org. "President Liebowitz used just the right tone and took precisely the right step," McKibben's statement read. "It won't be easy to divest, but I have no doubt that Middlebury — home of the first environmental studies dept in the nation — will do the right thing in the right way. It makes me proud to be a Panther." 

Middlebury made headlines earlier this fall when a group of students issued a fake press release claiming the college had divested in honor of the Dalai Lama's October visit. 

Liebowitz's announcement indicated that, over the coming months, the college administration will host panels and discussions with student groups, endowment experts, investment managers and McKibben himself to discuss divestment. 

It's a step in the right direction, says Greta Neubauer, a junior history major at the college from Wisconsin. Neubauer is part of a new campus group called "Divest For Our Future" that has been pushing for divestment this fall. The group is asking the board of trustees to release a statement that they recognize divestment as a priority, and are working toward that goal.

"We think that this is really an unprecedented opportunity for Middlebury to lead in this movement," says Neubauer, citing the college's early creation of an environmental studies program and its pledge for carbon neutrality as previous examples of leadership. "We really hope that they continue in that leadership role, and recognize that this is a chance to do something exciting ... and be seen as a leader in a movement that could potentially create real change." 

Sophomore Teddy Smyth of Georgia, an environmental studies major, applauded the college for unveiling some concrete endowment numbers. While he and Neubauer both admitted that actual divestment would likely be a slow process, he says the fact that the administration is talking about this "is a huge first step."  

Illustration by Stefan Bumbeck. 

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