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Colorado College students say school's investment principles don't reflect its brand

May 1, 2016 Updated: May 2, 2016 at 5:53 am
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The new Colorado College logo shown Tuesday, February 9, 2016, on banners hung near Cutler Hall on the CC campus. The banners hang along Cascade Avenue and Nevada Avenue near the campus. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

A May 1 deadline Colorado College students and alumni set last spring to commit to divesting its hefty investment portfolio from fossil fuels has come and gone, to the dismay of students pushing for change.

"It's really too bad to see the board take such a lackadaisical stance on this," said Ben Criswell, a senior. "Coming here as a student, we see the college branding CC as innovative, cutting-edge, environmentally friendly - but our investment principles aren't reflecting that. It's unfortunate."

Over recent decades, movements targeting investments of the private liberal arts college, which has an endowment now valued at about $700 million, have puttered along, sped up and stalled out.

In the 1980s, a campus group called the Colorado College Community Against Apartheid led demonstrations urging college officials not to invest in companies that had business interests in South Africa. Protesters constructed a shanty town on the quad and blitzed the stage at the 1987 graduation ceremony.

Their attempts failed. CC was not among the 167 American educational institutions that divested financial resources from South Africa in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In deciding against supporting the faction, Members of CC's board of trustees said that divestment could contribute to an upheaval and massive loss of life in South Africa.

This decade's movement appears headed for the same fate.

In 2011, an article in the campus newspaper, The Catalyst, accused CC of "hiding" endowment investments in companies that have track records of environmental and corporate irresponsibility, such as Monsanto, ExxonMobil, Fannie Mae and Halliburton.

The story launched a student-led campaign calling for the college to commit to "sustainable, responsible investments" with the endowment - pooled donations from alumni and other benefactors. In particular, students asked the college ban investments in companies related to fossil fuel extraction and processing, citing environmental concerns.

Each year, 5 percent of the endowment is pulled out and spent on financial aid for students, academic programs and earmarked uses specified by donors. The endowment's return has been good, averaging 10.6 percent in annual earnings over the past 20 years, according to the college. Activists say that's due in part to what they call socially irresponsible investments, such as the fossil fuel industry. A Student Divestment Committee organized and in 2013 began holding demonstrations, including placing oil barrels with mock spills around campus, hosting workshops, and forming alliances with other colleges.

More than half of the college's 2,000 students signed a petition calling for full fossil fuel divestment in 2013, Criswell said.

An estimated 5-10 percent of the CC endowment investments are thought to be tied to the industry, he said.

In May 2013, CC officials announced that the college would not divest from fossil fuels and would not place socially or environmentally responsible screens on CC's investments.

Last year, an alumni group supporting divestment joined the effort and worked with the student divestment committee to launch the Colorado College Responsible Endowments Fund.

Money raised through the fund would go toward the college's endowment, if the school agreed to certain stipulations.

The first deadline the group set was May 1, 2016. By that date, CC was to commit to freezing new investment in fossil fuel companies and fully divest within five years.

And, students and others on campus were to be part of the decision-making process in reinvesting at least 2 percent of the endowment in "equity and democracy enhancing climate solutions that confront the local impacts of environmental and climate injustice."

A second deadline of May 1, 2017, called for documentation to freeze any new investments, fully divest in five years and create a reinvestment committee.

If the college did not honor those requests, money raised would be donated to organizations doing climate and economic justice work.

The proposal didn't seem to interest the board or college leadership either. So the student divestment committee adopted another tactic.

"After not gaining much ground with the board with the full-fledged fossil fuel divestment, we decided to reframe the issue from pure divestment to more sustainable investment," Criswell said. "That gained a lot more traction with the board."

Last November, students asked the board to create a sustainable investment advisory committee comprised of students and faculty, and put forth other requests. The board agreed to a few, Criswell said, including:

- Assessing money managers' abilities to comply with environmental, social, governance and finance measures in regard to socially responsible investment principles;

- Including environmental, social and governance analysis in future reports from the fund's largest money manager;

- Remaining open to the idea of forming a sustainable investment advisory committee;

- Studying the work of similar committees at other colleges and universities.

"The CC board is taking a backseat, waiting to see how other schools do this first," Criswell said.

Nonetheless, "That's the most action the student divestment committee has ever gotten," he said. "In the past, it's been a flat, 'No,' for full divestment."

Requests to the college's communications office for an interview with a CC official to talk about how those requests were being honored were not granted. Calls to the CC board president were not returned.

The Responsible Endowments Fund has raised several thousands of dollars, Criswell said, which most likely will be donated to the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, a national organization.

This school year has been a "transition period" for the divestment campaign, said Zach Pawa, a junior at CC who is also on the student committee.

"The lack of action is disappointing," he said. "This started years ago, and the CC board had the opportunity to lead the way with this movement, especially with one of the core values of our school being a commitment to sustainability. It will become more and more obvious that investing in fossil fuels is not aligning our values, and that's a big problem."

It's a problem that might right itself at some point, though, Criswell predicts. With the slump in crude oil prices, divestment is "really starting to become less of a matter of principle and morality and just becoming a smart investment decision," he said. "We're reading every week about huge investment institutions pulling their money out of fossil fuels, recognizing there's a significant risk with the carbon bubble."

Across the nation, divestment campaigns at academic institutions once again are heating up.

This past week, students at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., held a week-long sit-in outside the president's office, calling for fossil fuel divestment. Lectures, student performances and other actions were held to draw attention to the environmental protest.

"There's a lot of market signals that show we're headed in the right direction," Criswell said. "Divestment is still a very powerful political tool."

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