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February 05, 2013

Sterling College Pledges to Divest From Fossil Fuels

DivestmentThough they've been snagging the headlines, it wasn't Middlebury College or the University of Vermont that nabbed the distinction of being the first college in the state to divest from fossil fuels. That honor goes to little Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, where the board of trustees voted on February 2 to strip its $920,000 endowment of the 200 top fossil-fuel companies as identified by the environmental organization 350.org

Unlike other colleges in Vermont, where the push to divest is coming primarily from student activists, Sterling's decision originated in the board room: President Matthew Allen Derr says it was the 18-member board that hatched the plan to divest, and voted unanimously to pursue divestment.

"This was a board that was really able to speak with one mind," says Derr. He adds that the thinking at Sterling, a college devoted to a mission of environmental stewardship, was, "If not Sterling, than who would do this?" 

Sterling is the third college in the country — after Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College — to pledge to divest its endowment from major fossil-fuel companies. Those promises are in the vanguard of a growing movement calling for divestment on college campuses nationwide. To date, 350.org tallies 234 "Go Fossil Free" campaigns in the U.S., including four in Vermont at Middlebury, UVM, Green Mountain College and Goddard College.

Sterling is tiny: Enrollment hovers around 100 undergraduate students at this rural, Northeast Kingdom campus — which makes it the smallest residential liberal arts college in the country ("by design," says Derr). The combination of its low enrollment and a string of deficits left Sterling teetering on the brink of collapse just a few years ago, according to VPR — but Derr says today that Sterling, thanks to a few years of strong fundraising and generous grants, is financially secure. The college operates on a $3.2 million annual operating budget. 

Sterling College hasn't yet pinpointed how much of its $920,000 endowment is tied up in the 200 companies that 350.org is targeting in its divestment campaign, but Derr admits the institution's exposure is likely limited. In the end, he says, the college's trustees weighed the possible risk of diminished returns against the benefits of divestment, and decided that Sterling's "social commitment" to its stated values of environmental stewardship outweighed the financial dangers.

John Elder, a professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Middlebury College and a trustee on Sterling's board, admits that Sterling's size — and the size of the school's pocketbook — might not seem like much in the face of the fossil-fuel industry. But that's not the point of the divestment campaign, he says. 

"It’s a way of calling urgent attention to the need to change policy on the largest levels," says Elder. "All our Priuses and recycling and compact fluorescent light bulbs are great, but taken all together, they will no more change this climate-change danger than Sterling College’s divestment will frighten Exxon. What we need is a very serious national conversation leading to policy changes at the highest level."  

Meanwhile, divestment campaigns are inching along at other campuses in Vermont. The trustees are meeting at UVM this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday — and students plan to be on hand to speak up about divestment. Middlebury College's trustees meet midmonth.

"Don’t think that leaders at Middlebury and UVM and Green Mountain and Champlain aren’t noticing [Sterling's leadership]," says Elder. He's hopeful, if not confident, that his own former employer — Middlebury College — will pursue divestment. 

When asked about what Sterling's early leadership in the divestment movement might mean for the remote college, Derr downplayed the importance of being quick out of the gate. "I think we have good company already," he says. "The goal of this is to not be alone. ... It's not our expectation that the statement we're making right now is going to leave us isolated or unique for long."

File illustration by Stefan Bumbeck. 

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