Times Record: Bowdoin should divest from fossil fuels (April 10, 2013)

Bowdoin College is known far and wide as a bastion of higher education and intellectual inquiry. It’s in both these traditions that a group of students has been agitating the administration to divest its portfolio of fossil fuel investments.

It’s not clear how large a group of companies would be included in such a divestment; students have not been very clear on that demand. We worried about that lack of specificity on this page on Feb. 8.

Other than that, however, the administration’s arguments against divesting seem hard for a forward-thinking institution to justify.

Everyone recognizes Bowdoin’s fiduciary responsibility: It must manage funds wisely to produce maximum returns that preserve and expand the institution. And oil companies have been doing well, as $4 gas and heating oil and their earnings reports attest.

But investing in fossil fuels doesn’t automatically produce favorable returns. Ask anyone who bought BP stock in the first half of 2010. In reality, divestment is nothing more than reinvestment: It doesn’t necessarily mean the school loses money; it just means greater discernment and creativity in deciding where to invest.

The school’s top investment adviser has argued divesting would have no effect: Investors would step in to purchase the discarded investments at cheaper prices.

That may be true, or it may not — depending on what forward earnings look like, which could be impeded if society begins to cut its demand for fossil fuels. But who cares what other buyers do? We say sell high, save face and buy something low and rising.

It’s also an excuse to say returns can’t be preserved by creatively spreading oil investments to other sectors — though it’s true that diversification, an important principle in investing, would suffer.

Another dubious argument, from college President Barry Mills, boils down to not wanting to yield investment decisions to nonfiduciary entities — a slope more slippery than the streets of Mayflower, Ark.

Except it’s a fallacious argument. Bowdoin halted, under some pressure, its investments in companies linked to South African apartheid in the 1980s, and did the same in 2006 in response to Darfur genocide — instances, Mills said, where there was “widespread international agreement” that the targets “were abhorred.”

Mills has said climate change has not generated the same consensus. We respectfully disagree. And the college itself seems to be equivocating when it officially committed itself recently to “carbon neutrality” by 2020.

Yes, there’s uncertainty about how climate change will play out. But the trend is unfavorable and throwing the dice is not an option. So who will lead?

Quite apart from the threat of climate change, we believe Bowdoin students have been raising important questions about the conduct of the college’s investment policy and the school’s place at the vanguard of intellectual action.

Nationwide, more than 256 colleges are being asked to divest. In Maine, The College of the Atlantic voted divestment this year. Unity College trustees approved it last year. Nearly a quarter of the Bowdoin population has signed a petition asking for action.

If our best institutions of higher education — a class of schools in which Bowdoin is clearly positioned — cannot steer world events through actions they control, can they continue to claim they are places — perhaps the last places — where raising awareness leads to the betterment of society?

Students are told: Do your research, make a compelling argument, act to increase your capabilities as you also improve your world.

In the face of compelling arguments to divest, it’s hard to see how the administration digging in its heels on climate change would achieve that mission.

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